As the thirteen year old girl made her way along the hospital corridor dressed in a white gown, she looked more like an angel. But upon closer inspection one could see that the woman guiding her back to her bed – her mother – had the sun ravaged features of a desert dweller or farm labourer and that the girl herself was far too thin.
“Leukaemia doesn’t stop me from living life the way I want to,” the girl, Hala Omar, said. “Although I don’t like the way I am treated at school sometimes.”
Leukaemia is one of Iraq’s most common childhood cancers and in fact, rates of it are far higher here than in industrialized countries, the World Health Organisation has reported. Various studies indicate that these rates have been rising too.
Authors of a recent study confirmed: “The dramatic rise in the incidence of cancer and birth defects in children under 15 years of age since the second Gulf War - that points to the terrible legacy of [depleted uranium] weaponry. Childhood cancers are now some five times higher than before the two Gulf Wars (currently around 22 children per 100,000, compared with approximately 4 children per 100,000 in 1990).”
Recently the World Health Organisation made headlines when it refused to publish a study on cancer rates in Iraq.
Abdul-Rahman Yaser, 16, knows all about leukaemia. “When I started to get sick doctors prescribed a drug that cost US$300 per ampoule. And my parents have been paying these costs for years,” Yaser says; his family has now sold everything they own to keep him alive and they have almost exhausted their funds.
Meanwhile in another part of this paediatric ward, is Amer Jabbar, who has another blood disease common in Iraq, thalassemia. Thalassemia is a life threatening, genetic condition that means the sufferer cannot produce enough healthy red blood cells. This is due to a missing gene. If left untreated the condition, which is not always immediately detectable, can lead to all kinds of health issues and often death. The cure is a combination of medicine and monthly blood transfusions, something that not many Iraqi families are always able to access.
The genetic condition is more prevalent in countries where family members who both carry the gene marry and it has required education campaigns to encourage genetic testing before such relationships are consummated.
Amer Jabbar is not yet 14 and right now he can hardly talk. He is panting because not enough oxygen is reaching his heart and despite medication, his life is in danger. Children with thalassemia often do not live very long.
“I didn’t even know that thalassemia was inherited,” Amer’s father tells. “I only found out after my children were born with this disease.”
It is estimated that over 10,000 Iraqi children are afflicted by thalassemia of varying degrees of severity.
“Every month between 100 and 150 children are born with thalassemia,” says Jamal al-Talqani who heads the Ishtar Association for Thalassemia Patients. “These numbers are disastrous. Especially considering that the medicine provided by the ministry covers only 60 percent of the patients.”