Iraq: Epidemic that came in wake of the war

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The Independent Online
IT STARTED with a chance conversation with Murtaza Saleh. She was wearing a turban and had cancer. "God knows, maybe the cause is whatever they bombed us with," she said. But Murtaza smoked cigarettes. Her story seemed as normal as it was tragic.

But then it turned out that her husband, a medical doctor, had died of prostate cancer, and three other family members had also died of cancer, some with no history of the disease at all.

I began to ask other Iraqis if they knew of cancer in their family or those of their friends. An Iraqi civil servant was chatting to me in Baghdad one afternoon. "My neighbour's baby is sick," he said. "Her name is Noor Mohamed Younis. She is only two-and-a-half years old. My neighbour said he knew something was wrong when he saw a sort of shining, glimmering in her eye". The baby had the eye removed - and they will remove the other eye in a few months' time. The doctors said if they didn't do that, the cancer would move to her brain and kill her within a year. The doctors said it was because of the war."

Then in Basra, in the poorest part of town, we asked a group of women about the health of their families. "My husband has cancer," one of them said. Sundus Abdel-Kader, a 33-year old mother of four, said her aunt had just died of cancer. Two other women interrupted to say they had young sisters suffering from cancer. And so it went on, in a society where merely to admit to cancer in the family is regarded as a social stigma. We went to the hospitals. And so the story materialised. Why had so many young Iraqis - especially children - suddenly fallen victim to an explosion of leukaemia in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War?

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