Worsening conditions in Iraq trigger spread of cholera
BAGHDAD - The number of recorded cholera cases in Iraq passed 1,000 in September with more than 40 confirmed deaths, vexing an already tense population shattered by Sunni-Shia sectarianism and violence by Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
Health Ministry spokesman Rifaq al-Araji said dozens of people had been diagnosed with symptoms of cholera. He said that, through the second week in September, there were 1,004 confirmed cases of cholera in Iraq.
Faris al-Brifkani, the head of Iraq’s parliamentary health committee, said at least 45 people had died from the disease, with about half of the fatalities reported in Najaf, 160 kilometres south of Baghdad. Najaf is considered the third holiest city for Shia Muslims and the centre of Shia political power in Iraq.
Araji said the southern Iraqi governorate of Muthanna, bordering Saudi Arabia, registered the highest number of cholera cases. The disease was also confirmed in areas under ISIS control in the northern city of Mosul and the vast desert region of Anbar, the Sunni heartland.
Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It is a fast-developing infection that causes diarrhoea, which can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death if treatment is not promptly provided.
There were scores of cases in Baghdad but the government, concerned about creating public panic, has kept a tight lid on details about the spread of the disease in the capital.
However, precautionary measures have been taken. The Iraqi cabinet allocated $8.4 million for buying chlorine and other supplies to disinfect water. At least 200,000 vaccinations have been provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and several thousand people have been inoculated, according to Health Ministry inspector Ahmed al-Saedi.
“We inspected at least 1,101 clinics, private hospitals, laboratories, pharmacies and outlets that sell medical products and closed 310 among them, which were found in violation of sanitary conditions or other reasons hazardous to public health,” Saedi said.
A state cell entrusted with reviewing civil crises held several emergency meetings to examine ways to seal off cholera-infected areas, according to announcements on the state television.
Dr Wafa al-Lami, an internist at a Baghdad hospital, said she treated tens of cholera cases. “But we were instructed by the government to refrain from publicising them to avoid creating public panic,” she said.
Rights activists Fouad al-Jarad said keeping the cholera outbreak in Baghdad off the public radar “is part and parcel of what we say is state corruption”.
“People are entitled to know about it and hear the real numbers, including the fatalities, in Baghdad and elsewhere so that they would be extra cautious when it comes to sanitation,” Jarad said.
Iraq’s water and sewerage systems are old and infrastructure development has been stalled by years of violence.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered hygiene-improving measures among them daily water quality tests, distribution of bottled water to families displaced due to conflict and the installation of additional water purification stations.
Iraq’s Education Ministry has delayed the opening of primary schools by three weeks to October 18th to allow the Health Ministry to complete precautionary measures in schools.
In the cholera outbreak in Iraq in 2012, four people died and 300 others infected, mostly in Kirkuk, 236 kilometres north of Baghdad, and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. In 2007, at least 24 people died of cholera and more than 4,000 cases were confirmed.
Iraq faces regular threats from other water and food-borne diseases, such as measles, typhoid fever, hepatitis and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever due to poor public services and hygiene, according to the WHO.