'Independent' aid brings first smiles to Iraq's cancer wards

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The Independent Online
"OXYGEN, for God's sake get some oxygen - my son is dying." It is an almost animal wail from the man on the staircase of the Basra paediatric hospital, tears running from his eyes, shaking uncontrollably.

In the small room at the top of the stairs, his son Yahyia Salman is crying, desperate to breathe. A leukaemia relapse - especially in the sulphurous heat of southern Iraq - is a thing of panic.

"Stop shouting, we have another oxygen bottle," Dr Djenane Khaleb admonishes the father, pursing her lips with a mixture of irritation and concern. But the man will not be consoled. "My God, what am I going to do?" he cries as a technician with a ratchet begins to unscrew the top of a massive battered black oxygen bottle.

The little boy's eyes move across the room, towards the doctor, towards me and his father. This is not the moment to tell him that - thanks to readers of The Independent - his hospital now has all the drugs it needs for leukaemia. The boxes of vincristine and vials of cefuroxine, ampoules of metaclopramide, of surgical gloves and syringes arrived less than 24 hours ago. But Yahyia Salman has gone a long way down the road towards death.

So has two-year-old Youssef Qassem in the next room, and Hala Saleh, who - just 10 years old - is suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The doctors show me these children with a kind of infinite weariness. They have received so many visitors and so many promises of help. At least ours was honoured. Dr Khaleb asks, very carefully, if the Basra hospital received the same amount of drugs as other hospitals in Baghdad and Mosul. I think I understand the purpose of her question - it was the Shia muslims here in the south of Iraq who rose against the Iraqi government in 1991, and there are those in Baghdad who have never forgiven them.

Dr Khaleb says nothing of this. Yes, I insist, The Independent's medicines were packed before leaving Heathrow to ensure every area of Iraq received - through the charity CARE - an equal share. And she smiles as she reads the drug manifest, which I have brought with me. "Yes, this is what we need," she says. It is the first smile I have seen this trip to Basra. For the doctors here are overwhelmed as much by the implications of their discoveries in the cancer clinics as they are by lack of medicine. For the increase in child cancer in these southern provinces - site of the last battles of the 1991 Gulf war - is in places reaching ferocious heights.

While in some areas, an average of 3.9 children in 100,000 are suffering cancer, the districts of Harthe and Gurne now produce statistics of 71.8 and 41.8 respectively. There was heavy bombing in these suburbs and the words "depleted uranium" are heard in every ward; even the parents know the meaning of the phrase. Allied shells and rockets, they say, contaminated fields around Basra - and in the Basra market, huge tomatoes are on sale, and outsize mushrooms. No Western scientist has visited to explain what this means.

Take Dr Jawad Ali at the Basra paediatric teaching hospital, a member of the Royal College of Physicians, who produced his own carefully recorded statistics for The Independent in March. "I don't know how to explain the implications of this to you but I am seeing terrible things," he said. "One of our medical students who has just graduated, Zeineddin Kadam, has cancer and he will die in a few days. The wife of one of our orthopaedic surgeons died just a week after a diagnosis of acute leukaemia - she died less than a month ago when she thought she had an appendix problem. They found part of her small intestine was gangrenous."

Dr Ali opens a thick file of notes. "Of 15 cancer patients from one area, I have only two left. I am receiving children with cancer of the bone - this is incredible. I have just received a 15-year-old girl, Zeinab Manwar, with leukaemia - she will live only a year. My God, I have performed mastectomies on two girls with cancer of the breast - one of them was only 14 - this is unheard of!"

Dr Akram Hammoud, director of the paediatric hospital, is no less appalled. "Almost all the children here will die in a few months," he said. "We have one family with three children, all of whom have Hodgkin's lymphoma. What can have done this? Before the war, we received in this hospital about one cancer patient a week - now I am getting an average of 40 a week. This is crazy. We are getting patients with carcinoma cancer below the age of 20 - one of my patients is 22, another 18. One of the symptoms of leukaemia is bleeding from the nose - now every child that has a nose- bleed is brought here by panic-stricken parents."

The Americans - along with their British allies - fired thousands of depleted uranium shells from tanks and aircraft into the fields around Basra in the last days of the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, projectiles which burn up on impact and scatter radioactive dust around the target; dust that can be transported by wind or water and inhaled by breathing. An American military report written in 1990 states that cancers, kidney problems and birth defects are among the health effects of uranium particle contamination.

"Even the common cold in Basra is changing its features," Dr Ali says. "It takes longer to cure here now and we get advanced cases, sometimes associated with encephalitis." He reopens his file. "In 1989, we received 116 cancer patients in the whole area; last year, the figure was 270. Already in the first 10 months of this year, it's 331. No one will give us the equipment to test the soil. Probably we are all polluted."

His story might be less convincing if it did not sound so similar to those of the American and British Gulf war veterans whose illnesses - and deaths - have still not been explained by our governments.

The medicines paid for by Independent readers have now reached the children of southern Iraq and there were some painful, emotional handshakes from the doctors when they arrived. But the questions remain: are we helping to cure those whom we ourselves contaminated?