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U.N. - Health effects from war still haunt relief efforts

Monday, June 9, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Nearly two months after the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein's government, relief agencies are still struggling to control widespread health problems aggravated by the conflict, U.N. officials said Sunday.

Geoffrey Keele, Baghdad spokesman for UNICEF, the U.N. children's fund, said 66 cases of cholera have been confirmed in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, with three of them being fatal. He blamed the country's damaged infrastructure.

The incidence of diarrhea has increased 250 percent among Iraqi children, worsened by war-related damage to Iraq's health and sanitation facilities, Keele said.

A survey last month showed 72 percent of children suffered from diarrhea in the previous month, he said. That is 2 1/2 times the normal rate.

The incidence of diarrhea often is used as a barometer of public health.

Meanwhile, U.N. Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello held discussions with prominent Iraqi political figures, including former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi.

Vieira de Mello, on leave from his job as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters outside Pachachi's home that his job was to "listen to, interpret and assist" Iraqis.

American forces in Iraq have denied the United Nations a leading role in rebuilding the country's government and infrastructure. But international agencies have been working to improve Iraqis' health, nutrition and housing woes.

Counting homeless

Authorities have registered nearly 2,500 homeless families, with many in Baghdad, said Robert Painter, a U.N. official. The homeless include orphans, widows, pensioners, the mentally ill and the physically disabled.

"We don't have a handle on this situation," he said.

Coalition forces asked Painter to visit the Bani Sa'ad prison, taken over in the weeks since the war by a tribe of 1,500 Arabs evicted from their farms near Khaneqin by Iraqi Kurds. The Americans want to use the prison.

"Clearly these people have occupied the prison illegally," Painter said. "But they are internally displaced people, and they need some kind of shelter."

U.N. officials said they have not been able to define the exact scope of Iraq's humanitarian afflictions because Iraq's health-care system has largely collapsed.

But Keele also said many of Iraq's problems predate the war, including the pumping of hundreds of thousands of tons of raw sewage a year into Iraq's freshwater supply.

Although Keele said the diarrhea problems may have peaked for now, July and August are the high season for dangerous gastrointestinal illnesses such as cholera and typhoid.


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