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Physician-academics help assess humanitarian and medical response in war-torn Iraq


Paul Wise, MD, a Stanford pediatrician and professor of medicine, recently returned from Iraq where he witnessed what humanitarian health care workers and Iraqi physicians were up against during the grueling battle for Mosul.

The northern Iraqi city had fallen to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 but was retaken by government forces and allied militias in July.

“This was tense, corner by corner, house by house fighting with suicide bombers operating, virtually almost every day,” Wise said during a World Class podcast for the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, where he is a senior fellow. “So the risks to health personnel operating near the front line was substantial.”

Wise was part of a small delegation of physician-academics asked to evaluate a World Health Organization-led system to treat civilians injured in the Mosul fighting. Some footage from their visit is shown in the video above. They recently slipped into Mosul to visit field hospitals, review health care on the ground and determine whether there is a better way to distribute medical aid during armed conflict.

The visit left Wise with many questions: Are there better ways to deliver emergency medical care during the height of battle? How do relief workers maintain neutrality when embedded with government security forces? Has the system of financing humanitarian interventions — one that was essentially created during the Cold War — become dangerously outdated?

Answering these questions is the mission of a new health-and-security initiative at Stanford led by Wise, a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy who has spent 40 years working to improve the health of children impacted by conflict. Much of his work has been in Guatemala through his Children in Crisis project, the first university-based program to address the needs of children in areas of unstable governance and civil war.

“In talking with the groups that are running these humanitarian efforts in Mosul, there was this uneasiness, this kind of disorientation with the way things are now,” said Wise. “It was a kind of recognition that humanitarian norms are changing, the health personnel and facilities are at greater risk; the financial gap between humanitarian need and humanitarian capability is growing; and the old way of financing humanitarian intervention is inadequate, archaic.”

Wise said the new FSI biosecurity initiative, together with Stanford political scientists, security specialists, computer scientists and health policy experts will attempt to craft new strategies for the provision of critical services to populations affected by conflict and political stability.

A longer version of this story appears at Stanford Health Policy. 

Previously: Women less likely than men to receive surgery in conflict areas, study shows and Working to improve the health of children in rural Guatemala
Video courtesy of Stanford Health Policy; photo courtesy of Paul Wise

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