Staff shortages threaten Iraq's health sector amid third Covid-19 wave

Vaccine hesitancy linked to cultural and religious reasoning among factors driving up cases

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Iraq’s health sector is in dire need of training and support to ensure it can counter the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has said.

Health authorities have recorded a surge in Covid-19 cases in recent days. Medics are struggling to meet the public’s healthcare demands following years of war and instability that has depleted the sector.

“Iraq is better prepared when compared to previous waves but it isn’t enough. The health sector has plenty of biomed equipment but they don’t have enough trained medical staff,” Dr Shazeer Majeed, MSF medical co-ordinator in Iraq told The National.

“So there's no point in having so many machines,” he said.

Daily rates have decreased in the past week, with 6,550 new cases reported on Tuesday and 16 new deaths.

The country has recorded a total of 2.2 million infected cases and above 24,000 deaths since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020.

MSF has identified that anaesthetist doctors are the ones who are managing ICU departments in hospitals in Baghdad, but Mr Majeed said it required qualified medical doctors as well as highly trained nurses to manage complicated cases.

“The ICU requires a multidisciplinary, patient-centred approach. Iraq’s health sector needs highly trained nurses, physiotherapists and mental health support,” he said.

Many Covid-19 patients come to hospital only when their condition is highly critical. They either receive some medical care or oxygen therapy, which, Dr Majeed said, required highly trained medical staff.

“The late arrival of the patient or delay in seeking specialised medical care has been a real challenge,” he said.

However, MSF is providing training for as many healthcare workers as possible in this regard.

Dr Hassan Ali, from Al Karkh General Hospital, said the lack of public awareness for health measures intensified the struggles of medics.

“There is a limitation of health services in general but on top we have a population that doesn’t really take into consideration any of the Covid-19 health measures,” Dr Ali told The National.

This is one of the main reasons why there is a spike in cases recently, the 38-year-old said.

The surge was driven largely by public apathy towards the virus. Many routinely flout virus-related restrictions, refusing to wear face masks and continuing to hold large public gatherings.

“We are struggling, we need support from all aspects, we have very little response from the government to preserve the health of individuals and society,” he said.

Vaccine hesitation

Even though Iraq has a mandatory vaccination programme, the coverage is low with only a little more than 9 million of the 40 million population vaccinated.

“There Is a lot of hesitancy in terms of vaccination,” said Dr Majeed.

He said MSF was working in areas that had a low vaccination rate.

“Each sub-district in Baghdad has its own reasons for this,” he said, adding that it could be related to religious or cultural reasons.

MSF is attempting to identify the reasons for vaccine hesitancy in a given geographical area and trying to target the population with that reason, Dr Majeed said.

“This makes it difficult to approach the problem and to overcome it, to open people's minds as to why they should get the vaccine basically,” he said.

MSF will have to “tailor the messages to the population of the sub-district or your target population”, Dr Majeed said.

Iraqis do not understand how important it is to get vaccinated, Sura Al Rawi, a general practitioner at Baghdad Hospital said.

"We are not only trying to convince people to get the shot but we are attempting to inform them of its benefits but no one seems to believe us," she told The National.

Ms Al Rawi said the health ministry needed to do more to ensure public awareness was spread throughout the country.

"Everyone needs to know the necessity of this, we've lost many lives. but we have to do more to save the rest," she said.

Iraq’s Health Ministry has repeatedly tried to reassure people that the vaccines are not harmful, but this has not convinced over half of the population who have long-standing distrust of the government.

Updated: February 02, 2022, 5:59 PM