Basra cancer patients decry poor health-care conditions

Taking a patient out of Iraq for treatment is not affordable for all Iraqis.
Saturday 31/08/2019
An Iraqi man carries his sick child during a demonstration outside a children’s hospital in Basra to demand the delivery of medical supplies for cancer patients. (AFP)
Health-care crisis. An Iraqi man carries his sick child during a demonstration outside a children’s hospital in Basra to demand the delivery of medical supplies for cancer patients. (AFP)

BASRA - Basra governorate in recent years has experienced a dramatic rise in cancer cases, with more than 2,300 patients diagnosed in 2017.

Despite Iraq’s huge budgets in recent years, little was allocated for health-care improvement. The Islamic State’s control of one-third of Iraq in 2014 led to weakness in various sectors, especially after the government dedicated the bulk of the country’s budget to buy weapons to fight extremists.

Naemah Khudhair, a cancer patient, said: “I have been suffering from cancer of the glands in the abdomen and neck for five years. It is so hard finding the chemotherapy drugs in government hospitals. These drugs are only available in private pharmacies at a price of 160,000 [Iraqi] dinars ($134).”

“Every 21 days I have to receive a dose of chemotherapy but I cannot afford the treatment. Sometimes my relatives and friends help me,” Khudhair said.

Falah Furaid, 45, in the section for advanced cases, said: “For three years, I’ve been suffering from severe pain in the colon area but I did not know it was the beginning of cancer. Four months ago, the doctors told me I had cancer and removed a tumour of 3 kilograms.

“Today I’m taking the fourth dose of drugs and every single dose costs 160,000 Iraqi dinars. It is very hard to bear the expenses, so my brothers help me when they can.”

By 2018, more than 100,000 people suffering from poisoning visited the city’s hospitals and the health system struggled to contain an escalating health crisis. Sewage and industrial waste contaminate the Shatt al-Arab River. Three-quarters of the water treatment plants in the city don’t meet health standards.

“The Shatt al-Arab is a tank of poison, not water,” Shukri al-Hassan, an environmental pollution specialist at the University of Basra, said while taking a sample of river water for testing. He said water pollution had been one of many factors leading to higher rates of cancer in Iraq.

“Increased levels of environmental pollution, particularly radioactivity from depleted uranium munitions used during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 war, as well as pollution from the emission of oil wells in Basra, directly lead to higher rates of cancer in Iraq, in general, and Basra, in particular,” Hassan said.

Official reports said 5,720 cancer cases were registered in 1991 but the number rose to 25,556 in 2016. The statistics from that year indicate that Baghdad and Basra provinces were the most seriously affected.

Experts said the increase in cancer cases happened following the use of internationally prohibited weapons, such as depleted uranium.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and resulting high rates of air, water and soil pollution have also been factors, some researchers said.

“In Basra, we recorded approximately 2,300 cancer cases in 2017 and we still receive about 250 people daily, some of whom visit the centre for consultation and others come to take their doses, while the remainder are generally advised to stay overnight as their cases need to frequent follow up,” said Dr Rafid Adil Abood, director of the Basra Oncology Centre for Cancer Oncology, which is affiliated with Al-Sadr Teaching Hospital.

Abood said breast cancer in women and bladder cancer in men were the highest among other cancers registered at the centre.

However, another doctor at the centre said, on condition of anonymity: “The statistics mentioned by Abood are incorrect. The number of patients is much higher but we cannot communicate them to the media.”

The poor quality of treatment in governmental hospitals led many patients to seek better care abroad.

Muna Ahmed, a 22-year-old resident of Basra, who suffers from breast cancer, had a mastectomy she now looks healthy and well-recovered.

“My father flew me out of Iraq when we have heard many patients went to Turkey to treat breast cancer and, on their advice, we travelled to Turkey,” Ahmed said.

Taking a patient out of Iraq for treatment is not affordable for all Iraqis, however.

Head of the Basra Health Directorate Abbas al-Tamimi said: “Our directorate recently received the approval of the Minister of Health to buy medicines from local markets and 80-90% of the required medicines will be available for free to all patients.”

Ahmed said: “Yes, it is given free of charge but how can we benefit from this service when the medicines are not available in hospitals yet?”

Saif al-Badr, Ministry of Health spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sarkawt Shamsulddin, a member of the Future bloc in parliament, said: “Even in the Kurdistan Region, the number of cancer patients has tripled over the last ten years. Neither Baghdad nor Erbil has a prevention strategy. The only thing doctors do is help with the treatment, which is not very good especially when we know that most cancer hospitals lack essential medicines.”

“Fighting cancer requires a long-term strategy by the government but it is not even mentioned in [Prime Minister Adel] Abdul-Mahdi’s 4-year plan. Iraq went through many difficult times and the health sector was badly affected,” he said.

Neglect by the government motivated the Basra activists and artists to organise a humanitarian campaign called “A Dose of Hope” to support cancer patients.

Hussein al-Arabi, 31, a rapper and a member in the campaign, said: “I sing to pressure the government to provide treatment for patients. Chemotherapy is no longer the only treatment available for this disease. Art is also a cure.”

“We are working with volunteers. In fact, we can’t only wait for compensation from the government or NGOs to help patients. It is everyone’s responsibility,” Arabi said. “We can help patients, even with a smile.”