WINCHESTER, Va.- The installation of a new MRI at the Basrah Children’s Hospital in Iraq brings the facility one step closer to diagnosing and treating childhood cancer, one of the leading causes of death in Iraqi children.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Middle East District oversaw the MRI project and the construction of the hospital on behalf of the U.S. government.
“The completion of the MRI project provides the hospital with even greater capability and demonstrates our continued support to our Iraqi partners,” said Col. Jon Christensen, Middle East District commander.
According to a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Iraq’s healthcare system has deteriorated over the past 35 years to that of a third world country. This is attributed to the lack of investment in health care for children and in modern training for health care providers. One of the biggest areas of concern, according to the report, is the number of childhood cancer cases.
Childhood cancers are eight to ten times more common in Iraq than in the western world and only eight percent of Iraqi children with leukemia survive compared to 80 percent in the U.S. Since 1993, the Iraqi Cancer Registry has reported an increase in the number and proportion of cases of leukemia in southern Iraq. Children under five account for nearly 56 percent of these cases. Of the five common forms of cancer that account for more than 50 percent of cases, four of them are curable if caught early enough. However in Iraq, most cases are caught in advance stages; therefore they are incurable even if the best treatments were available.
In 2003, the First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush, became concerned about the Iraqi health care system, especially the number of childhood cancer cases reported. She asked Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) to conduct a fact finding mission to Iraq to determine the best approach to building a children’s hospital in the country. They found that childhood cancer was almost five times higher in southern Iraq than in the rest of the country. In 2004, in a public-private partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development and Project HOPE, construction of the hospital began.
“The U.S. government is not in the habit of building hospitals; however, there was a great need for a specialty hospital in this part of Iraq,” said Dr. Joseph Núñez, Senior Energy and Commercial Development officer at the U.S. Consulate in Basrah. “Over time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over the project.”
The two-story 160,000 sq. ft. hospital is a 94-bed clinical and training pediatric facility capable of providing both inpatient and outpatient care. The facility has operating rooms, a pharmacy, imaging department, laboratory facilities and it can treat patients needing physical or respiratory therapy. Outpatient services include primary, specialty and emergency treatment. The site also has a 38-bed residence facility.
The hospital first opened for outpatient services in fall 2010 and today provides inpatient and outpatient services, with the exception of the oncology department, said David Schmidt, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Middle East District project manager.
Before the facility can begin treatment of cancer patients, a Patient On-Board Imager is needed for the linear accelerator, which is the device that delivers radiation treatment to patients. The OBI contract is currently in pre-award status, said Schmidt.
He added that all U.S. government funded components should be completed by summer 2014.
“There is also a tentative contract funded by the Iraqi government to hire qualified oncology staff to run the oncology department,” Schmidt said. “This contract is the last essential component so that the Basrah Children’s Hospital can provide radio-therapy treatment to the pediatric cancer patients.”
There is a waiting list of more than 2,000 cancer patients at the hospital waiting for treatment using the linear accelerator, said Schmidt.
Once the hospital is fully operational, it will help reach the goal of the Iraqi Ministry of Health to reduce child mortality in the region by 50 percent, affecting more than one million children.
“When the oncology treatment section is completed, the Basrah Children’s Hospital will be the only facility in southern Iraq that can treat such deserving patients,” said Núñez.