When it comes to dealing with a global epidemic, humanitarian aid can be limited by special interests, but the viruses it combats are often blind to political considerations.
Nobody knows this better than Dr. Ali Sindi, the former deputy minister of health for the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, who spoke Monday afternoon of the challenges he faced in dealing with the polio epidemic and the political hurdles that often came with it. Approximately 30 people attended the speech, which took place in the Branford Common Room and was sponsored by the Rotaract Club of Yale.
“As we can imagine, from the way the virus is spread around the globe, these microorganisms [carrying it] do not need passports to cross borders,” Sindi said. “So if they exist in a place or region, it proves a trouble for the neighbors.”
Dr. Sindi reflected on his experiences in health policy and said that even free aid came with a price.
“When I went to the Ministry of Health in 1996 and served an area of 4 million people, Poliomyelitis in addition to other issues were the concern of the public, government and the international community,” Sindi said. “But [in Iraq] the situation was so isolated and politicized so that it became impossible to add any import in the public health without having the influence of other issues.”
To illustrate the difficulty of combating polio in such a politically tense area, Dr. Sindi asked the students to visualize an area twice the size of Connecticut that was considered part of the larger Iraqi nation, but in name only.
“In reality we had no connections to the Iraqi government [for aid]. When it came to the issue of treatment, we had to find out ourselves the [vaccination] coverage we had achieved and how much we still had to go,” Sindi said.
Dr. Sindi said misinformation from the Iraqi government proved just as difficult to grapple with for doctors such as himself, who were instructed to report false vaccination coverage of up to 99.99 percent containment. He added that when Iraqi Kurdistan was no longer under the control of the Iraqi government in 1996, the true extent of the treatment rate — 52 percent — was revealed and was nothing short of “disastrous.”
Facing an embargo on outside aid, and distribution issues from within the Iraqi government, Sindi said he turned to the support of UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
“By the end of 1999, with the help of international organizations and the ministry, we had 11,000 people working the hospitals, the [treatment rate] figures went up to around 86 percent, leaving us with the second best coverage in the region.” Sindi said.
According to the World Health Organization, Poliomyelitis — commonly known as polio — can cause paralysis within hours, claiming the lives of 5-10 percent of its young victims. In 2003, 1,119 cases were reported, and the WHO has claimed that “there is no cure for polio, it can only be prevented.”
Since the tenure of Dr. Ali Sindi, however, the Iraqi Kurdistan area of northern Iraq has not had a case of polio for the last three years, and the WHO predicts polio will all but be wiped out worldwide by 2005.