Iraq's Woes Are Adding Major Risks To Childbirth

Amira Saeed tends to daughter-in-law Noor Ibrahim after her emergency Caesarean section at al-Jarrah Hospital in Baghdad.
Amira Saeed tends to daughter-in-law Noor Ibrahim after her emergency Caesarean section at al-Jarrah Hospital in Baghdad. (By Naseer Nouri -- The Washington Post)
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Noor Ibrahim lay shivering underneath two blankets on a bed at al-Jarrah Hospital. Steps away was a red plastic bassinet. It was empty.

A few doors down, her recently born son lay wrapped in a pink blanket. He was a chubby boy of nearly nine pounds with a big patch of black hair. His eyes were closed, his head cocked to the left, his mouth slightly open, his skin soft and pale.

The boy was not in a bassinet. He was in a cardboard box. He was not heading to his mother's room. He was heading to the morgue.

"Fresh death," Ibrahim's obstetrician said as she reached into the box and lifted the boy's limp right arm, still covered in blood and amniotic fluid.

Giving birth is painful enough as it is. In war-torn Iraq, it's also becoming more dangerous.

Spontaneous road closures, curfews and gun battles make even getting to the hospital a challenge for expectant mothers. Once they arrive, the women have no guarantee that they will receive adequate health care from a qualified physician.

"It's spiraling downward. It's getting worse each day," said Annees Sadik, an anesthesiologist at al-Jarrah.

Iraq once had a premier health-care system. But the trade embargo of the 1990s and now the exodus of medical professionals have made it no better than a third-world system, doctors say. Hospitals lack the equipment, drugs and medical expertise to make labor easier or to handle complications.

Women are forgoing prenatal visits to doctors as a result. Fearful of going into labor during the nighttime curfew, they are having elective Caesarean sections. Others are relying on midwives in their neighborhoods.

Doctors, especially women, have been targeted by unknown groups for kidnapping and murder. The kidnappers often appear to be motivated by money, seizing professionals because they are among the wealthiest people in Iraq. But many Iraqis also say that insurgents are waging a campaign to eliminate the people with the skills most needed to rebuild Iraq.

As is often the case in Iraq, where bombs usually kill civilians rather than their intended targets, the death of Ibrahim's son was a matter of bad timing. Her mother-in-law, Amira Saeed, told their story as Ibrahim recovered at al-Jarrah. Ibrahim would later confirm the details.

Ibrahim felt labor pains at 9 p.m. Dec. 23 at her home in Madain, a town 15 miles south of Baghdad that has become a flash point for tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Few ambulance crews are willing to pick up patients at night for fear of encountering death squads, militias or rogue police officers. Few doctors are willing to work at hospitals at that time for fear of kidnapping.

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