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Life Threatening Temperatures Are Putting Iraqi Children At Risk

08/07/2015 12:13 EDT | Updated 08/07/2016 05:59 EDT

Temperatures in Iran and Iraq were predicted to hit an apocalyptic 70 degrees Celsius this week. Such weather would be considered unbearable anywhere in the world, even for people with air conditioning, shady gardens, and plenty of water to drink.

But for Iraqi families who've been forced to flee their homes by recent violence -- and are now crowded into tents and metal containers -- the temperatures are life threatening.

Children are in the greatest danger of all. They sweat less than adults, and produce more body heat relative to their size than adults. It's why babies and young children can die so quickly here in North America, when left in hot cars.

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World Vision Photo.

As deadly as a hot car

According to the Canada Safety Council, one Canadian study found the temperature inside a car can soar to a potentially lethal 65.5 degrees Celsius within 40 minutes on a very hot day. Brutal as that would be for a child, it's still several degrees cooler than what some Iraqi children experienced this week.

Even outside of vehicles, prolonged exposure to heat and humidity, without enough to drink, can cause heat-related conditions that can kill a child. These include heat cramps, exhaustion and stroke.

World Vision workers are gravely concerned for the children of displaced Iraqi families living in makeshift camps in the Kurdistan Region. They number nearly three million, according to the most recent UN figures. That's three million people forced to share the same water sources, same public health resources, and same small patches of shade.

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Camps for internally displaced people are often open spaces, without much shade. World Vision Photo

"More and more families are telling us that their children are suffering from dehydration, hypertension, heat exhaustion and heat stroke," says World Vision's Cecil Laguardia, who is based in Kurdistan's capital, Erbil. Diarrhea, contracted by drinking dirty water from whatever source is available, further dehydrates little ones who need every ounce of liquid they can get.

Families struggling to help

Here in North America, many children's hospitals publish information guiding parents in the care of a children who've become overheated. According to one web site, parents should:

  1. Place the child in a cool, well-ventilated area.
  2. Elevate legs slightly.
  3. If conscious and not vomiting, give 4-6 oz. of water every 15 minutes.
  4. If person has temperature of 101° or higher, call ambulance.

These instructions might read read like a cruel joke for many parents in Iraq this week. Almost none of these measures are possible for most families in the Kurdistan region, whether they are internally displaced people (IDPs) or were living there already.

Huge public health risk

With the number of IDPs in Kurdistan doubling in the past 18 months, the urgent need for clean water has become even more desperate. Organizations such as World Vision say lack of funding has put many water, sanitation and hygiene projects into a tailspin. This leaves millions of people not only braving the heat, but also vulnerable to an increased public health risk.

"Most of the families are living in cramped caravans and tents of up to ten people, making the spread of communicable diseases faster," says Cecil Laguardia. "We've also seen a decrease in people coming to our mobile clinics because walking to the location is so difficult and potentially dangerous in this scorching heat."

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World Vision Photo

Iraq's Humanitarian Response Plan released in June warned that the hot summer would be a time of critical need for families, and that the existing infrastructure wouldn't be sufficient to meet the needs of so many.

"Water is critical for survival, especially in a heatwave like the one we're experiencing," says Laguardia. "People, especially little children, need enough clean water to drink in order to stay alive. We could have ensured that the water supplies for drinking, cooking and cleaning were secured, drilling more boreholes and installing more pumps."

Things could get worse

If the needs for water and sanitation aren't addressed quickly, the humanitarian community fears outbreak of diseases that can worsen the already miserable condition in the IDP camps. World Vision is helping rehabilitate a water facility in Duhok which will improve supply for over 40,000 people in Khanke camp and its host communities. The construction work on the project, in partnership with the Ministry of Water of Duhok, is ongoing and is targeted for completion by November 2015.

You can help children like these who are living in turbulent, unpredictable contexts through World Vision Canada's Raw Hope initiative.

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