It will be three years before doctors in Iraq can perform heart surgery on infants, doctors say, in a country where birth defects are high due to marriage within extended families.
“Until now, we have not been able to conduct heart surgery on infants,” said Doctor Hussein Ali al-Hilli, director of the Ibn Bitar Hospital for Cardiac Surgery in Baghdad.
“We receive 80 children a day with various heart-related birth defects that we cannot treat. We need three years to learn because such procedures are complicated,” he added.
The publicly-funded Iraqi hospital this weekend signed an agreement with Beirut’s Hotel Dieu hospital for its staff to receive training in heart surgery on infants, through agreements with Lebanese charity Heart Beat and France-based international NGO Chain of Hope.
The first seven-member Iraqi team, including a paediatric cardiac surgeon, a paediatric cardiologist and five other staff members from Ibn Bitar are to travel to Beirut on September 1 for a four-month training course.
A second team will follow.
“Here (in Iraq) the level is good for adult cardiac surgery but it is average for paediatric cardiac surgery,” said Issam Rassi, a Lebanese paediatric cardiac surgeon and vice president of Heart Beat.
“The smaller the child in weight and age, the greater the need for intensive-care units and advanced life-support systems,” he said.
“Congenital deaths are high in Iraq because there are a lot of marriages between cousins,” Rassi said, referring to the Iraqi custom of marriages within extended families.
Victor Jebara, also of Heart Beat, said that “children who cannot be operated in Baghdad because their case is complicated” would be sent to Hotel Dieu under the terms of the agreement.
UNICEF said in a report marking “Day of the Iraqi Child” on Wednesday that nearly 900 children were killed in violence in Iraq between 2008 and 2010 and more than 3,200 wounded.
The Day of the Iraqi Child was named after 32 children were killed by a car bomb on July 13, 2005, as they rushed toward American soldiers offering them candy and toys.
Meanwhile, by 2012 the Ibn Bitar Hospital plans to complete a 55-bed paediatric wing with four operating rooms and an intensive-care unit.
For the hospital, which was built in 1979 by an Irish company but closed after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s forces, the new wing will the culmination of a great adventure.
The hospital was severely damaged during “Desert Storm,” in which a US-led coalition pounded Iraqi occupation forces out of Kuwait. The restored facility reopened in 1992, named the Saddam Heart Hospital.
But during the US-led invasion it was looted and burned, to the point that the US military’s medical mission concluded in April 2003 that it was beyond repair.
But the Americans had not counted on the commitment of doctors to their hospital. To get it going again, they scavenged around Baghdad’s “thieves’ market” buying back looted equipment.
Today, Ibn Bitar receives 80,000 patients a year from around the country.
Hilli, the director, remembers when the Americans told him the hospital was a write-off. “Your assessment is wrong,” he recalls replying. “You don’t know us, we will rebuild it.”