Dave Anderson: We can help build a modern health service in Iraqi Kurdistan

Dave Anderson.

Dave Anderson MP.

Newcastle Journal – A group of medical professionals is regularly jetting from Newcastle to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as part of a wave of interest in this staunchly pro-british place with a potentially pivotal role in the Middle East.

The local group is spearheaded by Kurdish-born Professor Deiary Kader who has lived here for 19 years. Like so many others he was forced into exile to escape the brutality of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. He now wants to give something back to his homeland.

I have myself visited the Kurdistan Region twice in the past six years and am the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG). The APPG provides a bridge of friendship to a region which is recovering from dirt-poor conditions and genocide.

The most notorious example of genocide was the attack in 1988 on the town of Halabja where 5,000 men, women and children were killed by chemical weapons such as mustard gas.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s fragile existence was saved by the British decision to establish a no-fly zone in 1991. Saddam was intent on wiping the Kurds off the face of the earth and may have succeeded without British intervention.

Since Saddam’s fall in 2003, the Kurds have been able to build a safe, stable, democratic and increasingly prosperous society. They have plentiful supplies of oil, gas, minerals, agriculture and their living standards and services are improving every day.

But their health service is poor. Deiary says that his sister prays every day that she doesn’t fall ill. The APPG recently visited the main teaching hospital in the capital, Erbil. Parts of it were shoddy and unhygienic, but refurbished floors were much cleaner if somewhat basic.

The main problem is that they were almost completely cut off from the rest of the world and are now trying to catch up on modern methods, medicines and treatments.

They are keen on using external experience and expertise not least from the UK and have, for instance, connections with Sheffield Hallam University. But Deiary and his colleagues cannot wait for all that to filter through and are helping fill the gaps now. They have spent thousands of pounds of their own money to go to Kurdistan where they carry out life-saving and life-enhancing operations which would not be available otherwise, or at prices beyond the means of many ordinary Kurds.

Professor Kader first led a small group of medical practitioners to Kurdistan in 2010 to assess health needs. They saw hundreds of patients, lectured to healthcare professionals and located a hospital with adequate facilities to perform high standard orthopaedic surgery.

Later groups performed many operations and saw hundreds of patients with needs such as total knee and hip replacements.

The professionals, who give their time voluntarily, shared knowledge and techniques which they hope will be passed on and maintained. They have established links with medical charities and will keep going back to Kurdistan.

Professor Kader has formed a charity called Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers (www.ngmvcharity.co.uk) and recently organised a fundraising dinner in Newcastle, which attracted 400 people.

This practical people-to-people link is part of a growing network of cultural and commercial links. Just last month, a group of sixth-formers from Suffolk made the first ever trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. I hope there will be more such trips.

There are also opportunities for small and large British businesses to trade with Kurdistan and invest there. Kurdistan Region President Barzani recently told the APPG that such opportunities exists in oil, gas and “you name it”. The APPG has growing contacts with businesses that see a way of growing their trade in a potentially large and thriving market.

Given our own dire economic straits such possibilities are most welcome. Companies with an interest can contact me for further information.

Dave Anderson is MP for Blaydon.

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