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Sanctions creating havoc with health in Iraq

by Dr. Ashley Bloomfield for The Coalition for Public Health


The issue of the effects of 8 years of economic sanctions on Iraq has recently gained media attention. The Evening Post devoted an editorial to the topic [1], and TV One's "60 minutes" looked into the issues on 16 August 1998.

However, information about the devastating effects of the sanctions on the health of the Iraqi people has been widely available for some time. The seriousness of the situation is beyond dispute. The health effects have been documented by visiting health professionals,[2,3] and such august bodies as the WHO, UNICEF and the UN itself have confirmed that over 1 million people have died as a result of sanctions. The situation is particularly grim for children ­ over 4500 children under the age of 5 are dying each month from hunger and disease. The World Medical Association is renewing the call for medicines and foods to be excluded from economic sanctions.[4]

A group of New Zealand doctors has responded to the seriousness of the situation by forming the Iraq Sanctions Medical Alert Group ­ ISMAG ­ which was launched on 15 May 1998. The group aims to raise funds for medical and humanitarian aid to Iraq, raise the profile of the health effects of sanctions, and lobby the NZ government to reconsider its position on the sanctions in their current form.

To date, over $40,000 has been raised in conjunction with UNICEF and the group has played some part in increasing the media's awareness of the issues. ISMAG members have met with officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the group has been invited to present to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee. Progress with politicians is slower, but there are nodes of strong support which we are building on.

While opinions vary as to who exactly is to blame for the continuing sanctions, ISMAG believes that apportioning blame misses the point from a health and humanitarian perspective. After nearly eight years, the UN sanctions apparently have not achieved their original aim ­ to divest Iraq of the potential for building and deploying weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, sanctions themselves have become such a weapon. Leon Eisenburg's description of sanctions in the New England Journal of Medicine as "a war against public health" is highly appropriate[5]. ISMAG considers the end to be desirable, but the current means are unacceptable and incompatible with the overall purpose of the UN. Given the disastrous results, continued New Zealand support for the sanctions is becoming increasingly questionable.

Doctors have mobilised against the enormous potential threat that nuclear weapons present to health. The effects on health presented by sanctions on Iraq are real and vast. Tony Delamothe in the BMJ concludes "Neither individually nor collectively can doctors let themselves off the hook, however messy the issues"[6]. We urge doctors and other health professionals to inform themselves about the situation in Iraq, support ISMAG's work and encourage their professional organisations to pressure the government to review its support for the sanctions.


1. "It's time to review sanctions on Iraq". Editorial. Evening Post, August 12, 1998.

2. Ascherio A, Chase R, Cote T et al. Effect of the gulf war on infant and child mortality in Iraq. N Engl J Med 1993; 327:931-6.

3. Garfield R, Zaidi S, Lennock J. Medical care in Iraq after six years of sanctions. Personal view. BMJ 1997; 315:1474-5.

4. Appleyard WJ. WMA wants medicines and foods to be excluded from economic sanctions (letter). BMJ 1998; 316:76.

5. Eisenburg L. The sleep of reason produces monsters ­ human costs of economic sanctions. Editorial. New Engl J Med 1997; 336: 1248-9.

6. Delamothe T. Embargoes that endanger health. Editorial. BMJ 1997; 315:1393-4.

Dr. Ashley Bloomfield



Iraq Sanctions Medical Alert Group

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