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Iraqi children die quietly as infections spread
Wed Apr 23, 1:00 PM ET
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BAGHDAD (AFP) - For five days Samya Ilihadi has prayed over her son like a mechanical Madonna (news - web sites) at Baghdad's main children's hospital, waving a cloth over his sunken eyes and swollen belly to try to keep him cool.

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Her five-month-old boy Hassan is just one of thousands of Iraqi children caught in a deadly outbreak of diarrhea and other infections which have erupted in the aftermath of the war.

They are being caused, especially in the capital Baghdad, by a vicious combination of water contamination, electricity blackouts which are rotting food, tonnes of garbage which have piled up in the streets and open sewage.

Many Iraqi children are also extremely vulnerable because they were malnourished even before the US-led war that brought down Saddam Hussein (news - web sites).

Hospitals looted by Iraqi mobs are also short of medicines and supplies.

With the weather getting hotter, infections are spreading like wildfire.

"We've had a bad outbreak of gastroenteritis cases among children which can make them lose all the water in their bodies and face death," doctor Ahmed Abdul Fattah said in a crowded ward at Al-Iskan hospital in the west of the capital.

"About 70 percent of all the children who come through the doors of my hospital are suffering from this," he said, gesturing to beds filled with small bodies next to glassy-eyed mothers keeping vigils.

"In the month before the war, we were already having about 75 deaths of children suffering from diarrhea and chest infections. We're expecting more this month," he said.

"Many people have been afraid because of the fighting to see a doctor even if they have diseases in their houses."

Fattah said his hospital was just getting back to a "good condition" after it was overwhelmed by the war wounded, including from a US missile which exploded in a nearby neighborhood, and being looted.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said most hospitals in the capital are returning to work at a diminished level, but other relief groups have characterized the situation as "critical" because of the lack of supplies.

Doctors here and the United Nations (news - web sites) Children's Fund (UNICEF (news - web sites)) are worried the outbreak of infections will get worse before it gets better.

"Unfortunately, we can expect many more young children to die rapidly," said UNICEF's chief officer in Baghdad, George Hatim.

"Even before the war, Iraqi children suffered from malnutrition so it is quite serious. Now the water is contaminated and there is a lot of pollution and the state of the hospitals is really very poor," he said.

"We can also expect malnutrition to rise to alarming heights from widespread poverty, which is even worse because economic activity is at a standstill."

A team of Canadian health experts who visited the country reported in January that 500,000 of Iraq (news - web sites)'s 13 million children were malnourished.

UNICEF also found in 1999 that child mortality had more than doubled since the Gulf War (news - web sites) eight years earlier amid economic sanctions slapped on Saddam's pariah regime.

"Humanitarian groups can do a great deal but they cannot be a substitute for a whole system," Hatim said, pointing out the United States has yet to install a new government in Iraq.

"We're talking about a whole population, we're not talking about a refugee camp or an internally displaced population. Iraq is now in a sense a stateless state and it is children who are now suffering and paying the price."


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