Iraqi hospitals unable to keep up with cancer patients

Accurate cancer statistics are hard to come by, because many patients seeking treatment abroad are not documented.

A 2013 file picture shows a woman sitting next to her daughter who is a cancer patient at a hospital in Basra, 420km south-east of Baghdad. (Reuters)


2017/02/12 Issue: 1 Page: 21


The Arab Weekly
Oumayma Omar



Baghdad - Aya does not trust the medical system in Iraq to provide her with ad­equate treatment for an illness as serious as colon cancer and intends to seek health care abroad. “I will go to Iran for efficient and quick treatment even if it will cost me everything that I own,” said the young wid­owed mother of two.

“Everything happened so quickly, the pain, the bleeding, the diagnosis and then the operation to remove the tumour. The next step is to in­clude me in a (long) list of patients in need for radiotherapy,” she said.

Aya, who asked to be identi­fied only by her first name, said she would not wait for her turn for treatment at one of the Iraqi government’s hospitals, which are unable to provide for the growing number of cancer patients in the country. “Cancer treatment is very costly abroad but I am afraid for my children. I cannot leave them totally orphaned, without a bread­winner,” she said.

In Aya’s case, hereditary factors, in addition to the shock of losing her husband who was killed in a bomb explosion, were cited as pos­sible causes of the disease. In many other cases, especially regarding childhood cancer, the disease is viewed as the legacy of modern warfare to civilians living in conflict zones.

“Among the main factors that contributed to the rise in cancer rates in Iraq, notably among chil­dren and newborns, is the contami­nation of their region with radioac­tive agents from weapons used in battles in addition to the pollution caused by oil fields set ablaze in certain areas,” said Health Ministry spokesman Dr Ahmad al-Radini.

“Definitely, certain tumours are related to the abnormal trend of life and situation in which we are liv­ing,” Radini said, stressing the need to raise awareness about cancer.

“We are seeking to educate the public on detecting the disease at an early stage,” he said. “The con­siderable rise in breast cancer cases among Iraqi women is largely due to the failure of early detection. The ministry is assuming the treat­ment of cancer patients through 19 specialised facilities across the country, at a cost of up to $3,000 per case.”

The Gulf wars of 1991 and 2003 have left a legacy of pollution with radioactive material used in weap­ons in many regions of Iraq. A 2003 report by the World Health Organi­sation (WHO) stated that childhood cancer, particularly leukaemia, was ten times higher in Iraq than in in­dustrialised countries.

The Health Ministry has no fresh statistics on the cancer rate but pre­vious government statistics show that, prior to the outbreak of the Gulf war in 1991, the rate of cancer cases in Iraq was 40 out of 100,000 people. By 1995, it had increased to 800 out of 100,000 people, and, by 2005, it was at least 1,600 out of 100,000 people.

Accurate cancer statistics are hard to come by, because many patients seeking treatment abroad are not documented, said Dr Ziad Tarek, chief oncologist at Ramadi General Hospital. “The numbers are not very accurate. They should be higher, especially among chil­dren, adolescents and women.”

Areas with the highest rates of cancer are Anbar, west of Baghdad, and the southern governorate of Dhi Qar, Tarek said. “The two re­gions are highly contaminated with high levels of pollution affecting residents and future generations,” he said.

There is also a general belief that medical care outside Iraq is better and will increase the chances of survival for cancer patients, espe­cially those in advanced stages of the disease.

Ali Daraji, owner of a medical tourism company in Baghdad, con­tended that Iraqis have mostly lost faith in the local medical system and believe the only way to get good care, especially for compli­cated heath issues, is to go abroad, regardless of how much it costs.

“I’ve met families who had to sell their property to ensure the treat­ment of their sons in certain coun­tries, notably Iran, India and Leba­non,” Daraji said.

Even if the medical diagnosis were correct and the available treatments adequate, people would remain unconvinced about receiv­ing treatment in Iraq.

“They fear the medications used in government hospitals are less ef­fective because of corruption in the sector and favouritism in con­tracts with pharmaceutical firms, in addition to poor funding of hos­pitals,” Daraji added.

He said he expected new can­cer cases to appear among Mosul’s population as a result of the weap­ons used in the battle to liberate the city from the Islamic State. “Among the big problems facing Iraq are pollution and recurring wars that contributed to the proliferation of carcinogenic material,” Daraji as­serted.

With the WHO predicting that global cancer levels will rise 50% by 2020 from 2003, the presence of so much carcinogenic material across Iraq suggests that the public health legacy of recurring wars is going to get worse.


Oumayma Omar, based in Baghdad, is a contributor to the Culture and Society sections of The Arab Weekly.


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