Dozens of Ahwazi Arab citizens gathered in front of the Sina Hospital in the regional capital Ahwaz to protest about the deaths of eight Arab patients there within a two-day period, with some dying of kidney failure and others from inflammation of the digestive tract due to medical negligence by hospital staff, according to Iranian state media. Other patients with the same symptoms are reportedly still in intensive care, with doctors warning that the death toll may rise. This latest tragedy comes at the same time as two women at another hospital in the city died in childbirth a few days earlier.
The eight were among 50 patients who attended the hospital’s renal dialysis unit for treatment on Monday, July 25. Although none of the patients experienced any problems at the time, with all being discharged following their dialysis sessions, a number were readmitted the next day suffering various severe symptoms, including severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. The eight Ahwazi Arab patients, all aged between 40 and 60, subsequently died between Wednesday and Friday of the same week
Speaking to the Iranian state-owned Tasnim News Agency, the hospital director Dr. Seyed Sahed Husseini said that the hospital’s management are still conducting investigations to determine the cause or causes of the eight deaths. Dr. Husseini said that he refused to rule out the possibility of the province’s severe air pollution being a factor in the deaths, adding that the investigation, being carried out as a matter of urgency, would determine the cause.
In an interview with the semi-official Mehr News Agency, however, Dr. Husseini said that the primary cause of death among the eight patients in question was “inflammation of the intestine”, although he denied that there was any food poisoning outbreak at the hospital or culpability on the part of the hospital staff, despite the insistence of the deceased patients’ families that the principal cause of death was lack of adequate medical attention or nourishment for patients.
The Sina Hospital is the only hospital in the city which provides dialysis to the poorest Ahwazis (with the majority of Ahwazis classified as living below the poverty line), with most of those suffering from kidney problems unable to afford the cost of treatment or drugs at other private medical facilities in the region.
Health officials in Ahwaz (the region is also known by a Farsi name, Khuzestan province) have previously highlighted the problems suffered by dialysis patients at the hospital, where the equipment is dilapidated and ageing and there is an insufficient number of beds. These problems are exacerbated by the inadequate funding received by the Kidney Foundation of Iran, the only national body dealing specifically with kidney-related illnesses.
Following the deaths of the dialysis patients, Ahwazi activists launched a social media protest campaign to raise awareness of the case and protest against Iranian health minister Dr. Seyed Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, who the activists accuse of failing to take any serious action to protect Ahwazi dialysis patients.
The state-approved Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported that the patients’ families and other protesters supporting them demanded an official investigation into the patients’ deaths, and insisted that medical staff at the hospital should be held accountable for their wilful negligence. The protesters also demanded the resignation of the hospital’s director and the director of the University of Medical Sciences in Ahwaz, which supervises the hospital’s work and provides it with medical personnel.
The ISNA report also condemned the dilapidated state of the hospital, adding that it lacks the most basic of modern medical facilities and stating that the treatment offered there reportedly fails to meet even the minimum medical standards.
The representative of Ahwaz at the Iranian Shura Council, Jawad Al-Baji, visited the hospital on Sunday, accompanied by other Shura Council members, meeting with protesters, hospital officials, and the patients still in intensive care. Al-Baji told the state Tasnim News Agency that the hospital should be closed due to its substandard facilities and patients transferred to a better one, adding that at present it doesn’t even meet the standards required of a health clinic, suffering from long-term neglect and poor maintenance.
The Ahwazi delegate also condemned the hospital staff’s negligence and the lack of supervision of the patients who died, particularly since they were in the intensive care department prior to their deaths.
Many Ahwaz Arabs believe that the heavily polluted water supply in the region, caused by a number of factors including the oil and gas industries and untreated industrial waste being released into the rivers by regional manufacturers, is a primary reason for the abnormally high levels of kidney diseases among Ahwazi Arabs, which lead to a disproportionate number of deaths among the peoples there. These problems are exacerbated by the lack of hospitals, medical equipment, and experienced specialists to treat these conditions and to catch the early symptoms of these diseases before they can intensify.
Yaqoub Hor Neysi is an Ahwaz human rights activist