Millions of Iraqis Face Threat of Epidemics, U.N. Health Officials Warn : Medicine: They cite an urgent need to restore water supplies, food stocks and medical services.


Raising the specter of cholera epidemics and widespread malnutrition, U.N. officials warned Friday that millions of lives may still be in danger unless water supplies, food stocks and medical services are urgently restored in Iraq.

“What we are concerned with is that millions of lives are at stake, especially children,” said James P. Grant, executive director of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “I don’t think anyone in the West--anyone in the coalition--would want to see tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of children die as a result of this war.”

Grant and Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), undertook a dramatic, five-day U.N. survey of the Baghdad area. It ended two days before the allied ground offensive began.

Their team’s report offered a gripping account of the suffering of Baghdad civilians under the onslaught of the allied air offensive. The officials insisted that the suffering had not stopped with the halt in the hostilities. They predicted that the situation in Basra and the countryside were surely far worse than that in Baghdad.


“The Tigris River,” said Richard Reid, co-leader of the UNICEF team, “has been used as a well, as a bathing place and, increasingly, as a latrine.” Citing fears of a possible cholera epidemic and extensive malnutrition in the weeks ahead, he warned that a “truly drastic situation” had developed and said there is “a burning urgency to make sure that kids and pregnant women do not fall victim to the things that are edging in around them.”

The problems have been eased somewhat by Baghdad’s chilly winter weather, Reid said, but he warned that warm weather would start in four to five weeks. Iraq would then become the “hottest place on Earth,” a breeding ground for cholera, typhoid and meningitis, he said.

Reid said that if relief aid does not arrive soon, the breakdown of services and supplies “could cause more deaths and casualties than the bombing and fighting.” As a stop-gap measure, he urged the allied military forces to make their stores of medical supplies available immediately to the defeated Iraqis.

The UNICEF-WHO report bristled with a host of stark images: mothers whose nerves are so frayed by bombing that they cannot breast-feed infants; pregnant women subsisting on only a third of the calories they need; families unable to boil polluted river water because of fuel shortages; sleepless children wetting their beds out of anxiety; a four-fold increase in diarrhea cases, the surest sign of an oncoming cholera epidemic; mothers with children turned away from health clinics because of a shortage of drugs and vaccines; doctors unable to reach medical centers because of the lack of gasoline for their cars; a halt in the manufacture of disposable syringes; and the use of plastic bags for intravenous feeding.

Nakajima said WHO already had stockpiled medical supplies in Bahrain for use in five hospitals in Kuwait. But it had not sent any materials to Iraq, since the team crossed the border from Tehran on Feb. 16 with 54 tons of medical supplies.

Upon receiving the report, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said he would send U.N. Undersecretary General Martti Ahtisaari to the Persian Gulf to see what role the United Nations can play in supplying humanitarian aid.

“It was evident to us that the United Nations system must react with all due speed . . . to provide help urgently to those in need,” Perez de Cuellar said.

In their report, the U.N. team said the Baghdad government, which had supplied 500 liters (131.5 gallons) of water daily to every resident before the bombing began, was now supplying just 15 liters (just under four gallons) daily. That compares with the 94 to 149 gallons used daily by Southern Californians, according to the Metropolitan Water District.


The UNICEF-WHO team proposed spending $1.3 million on generator fuel, chemical purifiers and other supplies to raise the water ration in Baghdad to 40 liters daily per person for three months. To do that throughout the rest of Iraq might cost $4 million more, the team said.

To deal with food and nutrition problems, the team proposed that: aid agencies supply infant formula for children younger than 4 months; a campaign be launched to promote continued breast-feeding; foods for young children be developed, based on materials available in Iraq; a system be set up to monitor children to ensure malnutrition problems do not become sweeping.

Because the Iraqi Ministry of Health is now powerless to deal with an epidemic, the team recommended that aid agencies buy drugs to fight cholera and meningitis. U.N. officials also urged the ministry to resume monitoring the incidence of serious illness so it could move quickly at any epidemic’s onset.



The following groups are accepting cash donations to support their efforts in providing humanitarian assistance to civilian victims of the Persian Gulf War. Those wishing to donate goods or volunteer their services should contact Volunteers in Technical Assistance, (703) 276-1914.

Adventist Development and Relief Agency, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Springs, Md. 20904.

American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19102.

American Jewish World Service, 1290 Ave. of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10104.


American Near East Refugee Aid, 1522 K St., N.W., Suite 202, Washington, D.C. 20005.

American Red Cross, Box 37243, Washington D.C. 20013.

Care, 660 First Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

Catholic Relief Services, Box 1720, Baltimore, Md. 21297. Attention: Persian Gulf Fund.


Christian Children’s Fund, 203 East Cary St., Richmond, Va., 23261.

Church World Service, 475 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. 10115.

Direct Relief International, Box 30820, Santa Barbara, Ca. 93130.

Grass Roots International, Box 312, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.


Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Bl., L.A. 90048.

Lutheran World Relief, 390 Park Ave. South, New York, N.Y. 10016.

MAP International, 2200 Glynco Parkway, Brunswick, Ga. 31520.

Mercy Corps International, 3030 S.W. First Ave., Portland, Or. 97201.


Operation California/USA, 7615-1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, Calif., 90046.

Oxfam America, 115 Broadway, Boston, Mass. 02116.

Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief/Episcopal Church, 815 Second Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.

Save the Children, 54 Wilton Rd., Westport, Ct. 06880.


The United States Committee for UNICEF, 333 E. 38th St., New York, N.Y. 10016.

World Concern, Box 3300, Seattle, Wa. 98133.

World Relief, Box WRC, Wheaton, Ill. 60189.

World Vision Relief and Development, Box O, Pasadena, Calif. 91131.


YMCA of the USA, 101 No. Wacker Dr., Chicago, Il. 60606.

For more information about these groups, call InterAction (The American Council for Voluntary International Action), 202-822-8429.