Iraqi children face disaster from US-led war

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Posted by Andreas from ( on Tuesday, July 15, 2003 at 5:26PM :

Iraqi children face disasters caused by US-led war

ROME: Disease and unexploded ammunition could kill thousands of Iraqi children unless immediate priority is given to their protection, says the UNICEF chief representative in Baghdad.

Hundreds of thousands more are prone to injury, abuse and exploitation, the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF) representative Carel de Rooy told IPS in a phone interview. Children below 15 years of age are nearly 12 million (44 percent) of the 27 million Iraqi populations. Unexploded munitions are an immediate danger.

"The whole country is littered with instruments of war, even the schools," says de Rooy. "Just to give you an idea, two weeks ago 1700 sites with unexploded munitions were identified only in Baghdad.

"We are now engaged in a campaign to prevent people, children especially, from touching munitions," he says. "Munitions look attractive in their yellowish or silvery colours, so the children pick them up."

In the last two weeks of April, 260 civilians were injured or killed just in the city of Kirkuk, according to an official report. More than half of them were children. "This is terrible, indeed," de Rooy says. "But many more children are dying of diarrhoea. Those silent deaths are much, much worse, and they do not attract much media attention."

Between May 17 and June 4 the World health Organisation (WHO) reported 1,549 cases of acute water diarrhoea in Basra city. A large number of them are children. The newly born are most threatened by disease.

None of the approximately 210,000 children born in Iraq in the past three months has been vaccinated against any of the diseases they are vulnerable to, de Rooy says. "Given the current conditions in the country, all children are at greater risk than ever if they are not vaccinated right away."

About 4.2 million children below five are now considered vulnerable to preventable diseases such as polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, measles and tuberculosis. Iraq lost all its vaccine stocks when the Vaccine and Serum Institute of Baghdad was hit by missiles, and electricity to the store room was cut. "With the fall of Saddam came the breakdown of much of Iraq's health system," says de Rooy. "Only 60 percent of the primary health care centres survived," says de Rooy. "New equipment is now coming into the country and hopefully, I say hopefully, we will reactive them by the end of the year."

UNICEF has repaired five out of 10 huge storage refrigerators that were destroyed. It has brought 25 million doses of vaccines and is re-starting the immunisation programme in partnership with the reactivated Ministry of Health.

UNICEF has raised about 90 million dollars for the programme from European countries, the European Commission, Canada, Japan, and the US, de Rooy says. But the intervening gap could be dangerous. Before the last war Iraq was certified polio-free, measles had been brought under control, and maternal and neonatal tetanus eliminated with the support of UNICEF and WHO. "Today there are few restrictions on the spread of polio, and re-emergence could also infect people in neighbouring countries, thereby threatening the region," de Rooy says.

UNICEF sees street children as a growing problem. "Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, the problem simply did not exist," de Rooy says. "There was a very high rate of children in the schools, and no child labour. The international economic blockage enforced that year to put pressure on Saddam Hussein took children out from school into the labour market." "Poverty is pushing children into the streets," de Rooy says.

"They just need to make their living and bring home some dinars (the local currency) at the end of the day." Independent reports indicate that their conditions have worsened after the war launched on March 20 by the United States and Britain to remove Saddam Hussein's government. Iraq is currently administrated by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by a US official, L. Paul Bremer. UNICEF is asking for introduction of social policies that take children back to their families and back to school as a way of protecting them from exploitation and injury.

-- Andreas
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