- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

GENEVA — A mass flight of doctors is threatening Iraq’s overburdened health facilities with collapse as they struggle to cope with suicide attacks, sectarian violence and raging criminality, international analysts say.

“More and more people are fleeing daily, especially academics, doctors, scientists, engineers, civil servants and businessmen,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari reported at a conference in Geneva last week.

“These are increasingly preyed upon by kidnappers and terrorists trying to disrupt the restoration of normal civilian life and drain the country of its most precious resources.”

More than half of Iraq’s 34,000 doctors have left the country, according to information provided to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by Iraq’s health ministry. Many more have been threatened, killed or kidnapped.

The World Health Organization, quoting Iraqi government estimates, said at the same conference that “almost 70 percent of critically injured patients with violence-related wounds die while in emergency and intensive care units due to a shortage of competent staff and lack of drugs and equipment.”

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that about 1.9 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq and that up to 2 million have fled, most of them to neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan.

Many of the refugees say they left because of the lack of access to medical care and difficulty in getting medicines, according to Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR’s Iraq support unit.

“If there’s to be a future for Iraq, these people cannot be lost,” he said.

A 2006 Brookings Institution study cited by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimated that 2,000 doctors had been killed and 250 kidnapped in Iraq.

Senior U.N. humanitarian officials say they think the actual numbers are considerably higher than the Brookings estimate, but that it is hard to quantify because of the volatile situation in the country.

“Our surgical wards are always full and working conditions are extremely difficult,” Adel Al-Shammari, director of the Al-Kindi Teaching Hospital in Baghdad, told the ICRC. “Of the 208 surgeons who used to work here, only 40 or so are still on duty today.”

A bleak assessment was also provided by Rafiq Tschannen, the Iraq chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration, which is providing assistance to more than 200,000 displaced Iraqis.

“We hear that in some hospitals 80 percent of the doctors have left. We are at the near collapse of the health system. … Of course, if we don’t provide security for them, they may not be encouraged to go back,” he told reporters.

The ICRC, in an April 11 report, “Civilians without protection,” noted “frequent reports of armed men storming hospitals and forcing doctors to give their companions priority treatment at the expense of others in more urgent need.”

Ala Alwan, a senior official with the World Health Organization, said the situation has deteriorated since 2005, “particularly in relation to human resources, with massive brain drain taking place in the health sector.”

Large numbers of medical specialists left Iraq over the past two years, and postgraduate training programs in many specialities are severely hampered by a lack of qualified faculty, said Dr. Alwan, who served as Iraqi minister for education and health from 2003 to 2005.

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