Physician-academics help assess medical response on the ground in Iraq

mosul health ERBIL, IRAQ — A Red Cross nurse from Sweden applies a dressing to a 3-year-old boy who was injured after an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated near him in Mosul on April 17, 2017.


Paul Wise watched as children ran around a playground attached to a health clinic at a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Mosul — the northern city in Iraq once controlled by the Islamic State but now back in the hands of the Iraqi government.

The children had survived the Battle of Mosul, which had fallen to ISIS in 2014 but was retaken by the government forces and allied militias during a nine-month military campaign that ended in July. Many of the children suffer from physical and mental wounds and Wise wondered how they would recover with so little medical infrastructure.

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. Wise and his colleagues 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 the Stanford Medicine professor of pediatrics and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies with questions about health care, humanitarian ethics, and conduct of war: 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of financing humanitarian interventions — one that was essentially created during the Cold War — become dangerously outdated?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.”



An Interdisciplinary Approach

Wise believes academics are well suited to help resolve these humanitarian conundrums.

“So we are going to move ahead and try to bring all the players together to reconsider this global challenge. Here at Stanford, we have the capacity to draw upon remarkable resources,” he said.

The new biosecurity initiative led by Stanford Medicine physician and FSI senior fellow, David Relman, together with world-renowned 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.”

The initiative will collaborate with other institutions such as Johns Hopkins, UCSF, Harvard, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It will also seek the engagement of partners committed to providing humanitarian services, including WHO, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“The voice of communities impacted by war should also be an essential element in this ambitious effort,” Wise said. “To break new ground, we’re going to have to do things differently; the health strategies need to take into consideration fundamental understanding of the political dynamics. But we have a special opportunity here at Stanford because we take an interdisciplinary approach.”

Children of War

Most of the children Wise saw will never be the same, he said, nor the humanitarian workers who risked their lives to treat them, their families, and fighters from all sides of the battle to oust the Islamic extremists from the city on the Tigris River.

“I look at these little kids with horrendous emotional trauma and PTSD, and I think to myself, it’s the collision of all these questions playing out within a 50-square-meter little playground,” he said. “It’s these broader, strategic and ethical questions that are really profound. And as a pediatrician who is dedicating the last phase of my career to these questions of security and the political dimensions — I have to engage on all of these levels. That’s not easy.”

Wise traveled with WHO officials, as well as Paul Spiegel, a physician who leads the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Adam Kushner, a trauma surgeon affiliated with Johns Hopkins; and Kent Garber, a surgical resident at UCLA and research associate at Johns Hopkins.


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Spiegel also believes academics are uniquely positioned to help assess the current system of responding to medical crises during conflict.

“I believe that we can bring objectivity and rigor to analyzing and evaluating important and innovative responses, such as the trauma response by WHO and others in Mosul,” Spiegel said. “Humanitarian organizations are often busy responding quickly to rapidly changing situations; they don’t always have the luxury of time to do what academic humanitarians can do.”

Making the two-hour drive from Erbil to Mosul in armored, bulletproof SUVs provided by the United Nations, they slipped into field hospitals to meet with Iraqi physicians and medical teams with the humanitarian agencies.

Wise, who was able to take a few photos and video on his smartphone, described the devastation on the ground, noting that not since the siege of Leningrad has a city of this size experienced such street-by-street fighting. In large parts of the city, virtually every building was bombed or bulleted. It will take years to clear the rubble and rebuild.

“It’s just a remarkable story of tragedy and resilience,” he said.


Since the city was not long ago controlled by ISIS, the field hospitals are still surrounded by massive concrete barricades and tactical trucks stationed outside with mounted machine guns.

The team found that at the height of the battle for Mosul, there was tremendous pressure to treat injured civilians and discharge patients very quickly, due to the lack of medical infrastructure and personnel and the continuous wave of new injuries coming in.

“The charge for us was to evaluate the system and how well it worked, what ways could it be improved, how many lives that it saved,” Wise said. “One of the concerns, for example, was that in order to put in medical people that close to the frontline, you have to give them some kind of security. This raised issues among the humanitarians about their need for independence and neutrality, since you’re essentially embedding them with Iraqi security forces.”

Epidemiology and Ethics


“We are looking at the technical issues and the epidemiologic issues, but also dealing with the ethical issues and their implications,” he said.

They intend to write an internal report and then publish their findings in a major medical journal, to get the word out about the issue and gain support for ongoing collaborative work. They’re looking to partners like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which recently devoted an entire issue of its journal, Daedalus, to the factors and influences of contemporary civil war. One of the essays in that issue by Wise and his Stanford colleague, Dr. Michele Barry, who directs the Center for Innovation in Global Health, talks about the threat of a global pandemic as a potential byproduct of the 30 ongoing civil wars around the world.

“We’re trying to get the report completed quickly because the model of trauma care for civilians in Mosul is a new model and could be implemented in other combat areas, like the fighting in Syria and other places in Iraq,” Wise said.

Wise worries some see Stanford University as an insulated Silicon Valley institution in a beautiful setting and not always engaged in the real world.

“Well, this is about as engaged in the real world as you can get — this is Stanford moving and doing things out there, not just sitting around in seminar rooms. Sometimes you need to get close to the front lines to save lives,” he said.

When asked what surprised him during this trip to Mosul, Wise smiled.

“I’m sort of old and I’ve seen a lot of the world and not a lot surprises me anymore,” he said. “But it was a reminder of how desperate are the lives of millions of people — that we could do so much more. It’s a reminder of just how fragile physical security really is in this world."

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