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SAMHSA News - March/April 2004, Volume 12, Number 2
 

Across Borders: Reaching Out to Iraq

Thirty years of armed conflicts and a brutal dictatorship have eroded the health of the people of Iraq and devastated their system of health care. Understaffed, lacking supplies, and with ongoing concerns for their own safety, Iraqi doctors and other health care personnel are attempting to deal with enormous needs.


Iraqi doctors and other health care personnel are attempting to deal with enormous needs.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson traveled to Iraq at the end of February accompanied by a group of senior Federal health care officials that included SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, M.A., A.C.S.W. Their mission? To explore how the United States can help rebuild the health care delivery system in Iraq and restore the health of the Iraqi people.

Using the analogy of the U.S. Marshall Plan in rebuilding Europe after World War II, Secretary Thompson said, "Because our health, our economies, and our humanitarian values have become truly global in nature, our responses must likewise be global in nature."

Six months prior to the trip, Secretary Thompson and other Federal officials met in the United States with the Iraqi Minister of Health, Khudair Abbas, M.D., and the senior advisor for health to the Coalition Provisional Authority, James K. Haveman, M.S.W. At the meeting, Dr. Abbas and Mr. Haveman identified the three areas most in need of rebuilding within the health care system: surveillance of infectious diseases, oncology, and mental health. As a result, Mr. Curie served as part of the visiting team.


In Baghdad, the team visited the Ministry of Health and the Al Mansour hospital, as well as the Al Alwiya women's clinic.

In Baghdad, the team visited the Ministry of Health and the Al Mansour hospital, as well as the Al Alwiya women's clinic.

Iraq's ancient history is distinguished. Often called the "Cradle of Civilization," Iraq (Mesopotamia) was the site of the world's first constitutional system and a center for the study of medicine, science, philosophy, and the arts. The world's first psychiatric hospital was built in Baghdad in 753 A.D.

Today, in addition to the lack of electricity, fuel, and safe drinking water, many hospitals lack basic equipment and supplies. In a country of 25 million people, there are fewer than 100 psychiatrists, according to a report from the World Health Organization. There are no clinical psychologists and very few social workers. Services and psychiatric medications for mental health treatment are also scarce.

The country lacks community mental health services, and the country's only long-term care hospital for people with serious mental illnesses was looted and vandalized near the end of major combat in April 2003. Many of the patients ran away and are still missing.

Ordinary Iraqi citizens have been traumatized by war and debilitated by years of living under an omnipresent, repressive dictatorship with constant surveillance and where a chance remark or spontaneous action could result in punishment or imprisonment.

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