- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2007


The narrow, gloomy room is no place for a grandmother to live. But Noura Jassem Mohammed, who at 71 stays here without a toilet or running water, has no choice. She has run out of relatives willing to care for her.

Widowed four years ago, Mrs. Mohammed no longer can make ends meet on her husband’s modest pension, so she must beg from neighbors, friends and distant relatives. She uses a neighbor’s bathroom and is too poor to afford all her blood pressure and heart medicine.

“The day my husband died was the worst day of my life,” said Mrs. Mohammed, wiping away tears with the hem of her long black robe, known as an abaya. “I’ve had nothing but problems since.”

Investment in health and geriatric care suffered under Saddam Hussein, who steered government revenues to the security forces and his own pockets even as the country labored under more than a decade of harsh international sanctions.

Already teetering when Saddam was ousted in 2003, Iraq’s health care system has had no chance to recover in the face of a violent insurgency, the collapse of basic services and the weakness of the new central government.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Iraq, potentially among the richest countries in the region, has fallen behind peer nations such as Egypt and Jordan on basic health indicators. Per capita spending on health care in Iraq is $23 a year, less than half that in Egypt and one-seventh of the figure for Jordan.

With health professionals fleeing the insecurity in huge numbers, Iraq has 6.6 doctors for every 100,000 people, compared with nearly 25 doctors in neighboring Jordan.

Traditionally dependent upon relatives and extended family to care for them, Baghdad’s elderly are being abandoned in greater numbers as relatives flee the violence and chaos of Iraq, government officials said.

“The elderly in Iraq have been dealt a very bad hand and short of a miracle very little can be done to help them,” said Dr. Akif Alousi, a physician and representative of the Iraqi Medical Association. “Sometimes they just close the door of the house and wait to die slowly.”

The most vulnerable senior citizens are in frail health with little or no income and cannot live independently. Many have no children to support them or have never married.

Adding to their misery, Iraq’s devastated health care system makes it nearly impossible for Baghdad’s elderly residents to receive adequate medical treatment. The lack of potable water and electricity here further threatens their welfare during the sweltering summer months.

Demographers at WHO said 2.8 percent of Iraq’s 28 million people were 65 and older in 2005, the most recent year for which figures were available. By contrast, 12.6 percent of the U.S. population and 17 percent in Japan are 65 or older.

For Iraqis like 87-year-old Mariam Ansari, who have beaten the odds and endured, self-preservation these days is a daily struggle.

Mrs. Ansari lives in a single room with cement walls. A fluorescent light illuminates a twin bed and a patchwork of threadbare Persian rugs covering a dirt floor. The room, provided by a neighbor as charity, is among the many donations from the community on which Mrs. Ansari depends to meet her basic needs.

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