Middle East is at risk of a major health crisis

Friday 09/10/2015

Iraq is registering a frightening rise in cholera cases. At least 1,000 people have been affected by the epidemic.

According to the Iraqi Health Ministry, lower water levels in the Euphrates are to blame for contamination of water reserves used for farming and drinking.

Climate change, as reflected by unusually high temperatures of last summer, is likely to have been a factor.

But Iraqis, who complain of the steady deterioration of water and sewage systems, have taken to the streets to protest fraying public services. That includes lack of hygiene and inadequate medical care in a country where hospitals suffer shortages of medicine and personnel. There is, however, no shortage of security problems.

Despite emergency measures instituted by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the country’s generally precarious health conditions will complicate the government effort. Through the years, regional wars and sectarian strife have adversely affected the state’s capacity to provide medical care and prevent and control diseases. Thousands of doctors have left the country and many others were killed. Migration is a tempt­ing option for many Iraqis, including the remaining medical workers.

War is creating an even worse health crisis in Syria. Polio, eradicated in Syria in 1999, has made a comeback, especially among refugees. Accord­ing to Save the Children, 60% of the country’s hospitals and 38% of primary health facilities have been destroyed.

Poor living conditions make the internally displaced populations in Syria and Iraq vulnerable to disease and epidemics. The International Committee of the Red Crescent is warning against the rise of typhoid and cholera cases in Yarmouk and Aleppo. The number of typhoid cases in the Yarmouk camp reached 90 in September, according to the Palestinian relief agency.

Medical experts warn of the risk of cholera, tuberculosis, the MERS coronavirus, polio and new strains of bird flu. There have been reports of leishmaniasis, the flesh-eating infection, in parts of Syria.

Medical facilities in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey can hardly keep up with the mounting health needs of the refugee population they are hosting.

Making matters worse in Syria and Iraq is the use by the Islamic State (ISIS) of dams and water resources as a weapon of war. The brutal terror organisation is reportedly depriving populations outside its control of a fresh water supply. It is diverting water to such places as Raqqa to showcase the success of the “Islamic caliphate”. Reports point, however, to failure of ISIS to properly manage the health risks in areas under its control, further complicating the already complicated health crisis.

The health crisis is not limited to Syria and Iraq. War in Yemen is making the health situation there even more dire. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned against the spread of disease in Yemen as a result of the deterioration of the water supply, waste disposal and sanitation systems. From March to September, more than 1,600 cases of dengue fever were reported in Taiz province, according to the WHO.

As war escalates in Syria and Iraq and grinds on in Yemen, the interna­tional community should be aware of the rising risks of disease and epidemics in the Middle East. Greater regional and global solidarity is necessary.