May 30, 2003
The near collapse of Iraq's strict disease control measures, such as testing blood of foreigners at the border and prostitutes on the streets, has doctors there worried about a surge in hepatitis, HIV and other viruses. With an influx of Iraqi exiles and international aid workers to assist in rebuilding the country, the doctors say they believe the number of communicable disease cases will rise sharply, although they report only anecdotal evidence of increases so far.
Iraqis stole hundreds of vials of HIV- and hepatitis-positive blood samples from Baghdad's central virus laboratory freezers during the war, and officials say they have no idea what was done with the blood. Computers and blood screening equipment were stolen, and files were burned. "We used to screen every risk group -- now we're screening no one except people coming to us," said Dr. Ramizia Al-Khayatt, with the central laboratory. "Our controls are all gone."
The capitol's major blood testing center is a dirty, poorly lit room with used cotton balls and syringe caps scattered among the broken floor tiles.
According to Iraqi health officials, during the past decade about 500,000 people have been diagnosed with hepatitis B -- international health groups put the figure as high as 1.3 million -- and about 125,000 people contracted hepatitis C.
Many of the sickest HIV-positive and hepatitis patients were quarantined at a sprawling hospital in southern Baghdad that has recently been ransacked from wing to wing. This week, young men were seen carrying tin and metal sheeting from the HIV ward that once housed a dozen patients; shattered glass was all that was left. Yonis Yousif, a nurse who usually staffs the blood testing center, said that some days he cannot screen for hepatitis and HIV because he does not have the proper kits. He said he regularly turns away people who return for their pre-war test results that are now lost.
05.29.03; Patrick Healy