Iraq fights cholera epidemic
This article first appeared on The Media Line.
Health officials in Iraq are working to contain an outbreak of cholera that could threaten millions of Shi’ite pilgrims due to visit holy sites in Iraq early next month. According to UNICEF, there have been over 2000 confirmed cases of the disease and two deaths reported in Iraq, as well as individual cases in Kuwait and Bahrain.
“The millions of pilgrims who come will be walking through areas that have cholera,” Jeffrey Bates, the Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Iraq told The Media Line. “If these people access contaminated water sources, they could get the disease. We are working with the government and religious sources to make the sure the water systems along the route are clean and that medical facilities along the way are equipped.”
The pilgrims are coming to the Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to mark the “arbaeen”, the end of 40 days of mourning for Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and the founder of Shi’ite Islam.
Outbreaks of cholera in Iraq are frequent, and usually come in the fall and spring, Bates says. This year it is more challenging than the past because the Islamic State controls about a third of northern and Western Iraq. It has been difficult to assess the cholera situation there, and there are fears that the three million displaced people might have less access to clean water than in the past.
Bates says that the key to controlling the spread of cholera is early detection. There is an anti-cholera vaccine that is effective in 50- 60 percent of the cases if two doses are taken. Cholera can be treated with oral rehydration solution, and in severe cases, antibiotics. The disease is spread through contaminated water or food.
Bates says that UNICEF has partnered with the Iraqi government to handle the cholera outbreak.
“The government came on board quickly as soon as cholera was identified in September,” he said. “Because of the conflict going on (with Islamic State) we had to re-gear quite a bit, but the response was rapid. The government responded with a round of oral cholera vaccine aimed at the displaced people and refugees.”
He said the first round of the oral vaccine was completed last week, and the second round is scheduled for early next month. In any case, the cholera outbreak, which tends to be seasonal, is winding down.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it has launched a campaign to encourage families to purify water, prepare food carefully and to wash their hands. The organization said it has launched a campaign to use 510,000 doses from a global stockpile of one million of the anti-cholera vaccination and will use it to vaccinate 255,000 internally displaced people and refugees.
“Five countries – Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – have reported cholera cases. The cholera situation in Kuwait and Bahrain is under control, however we are concerned about the current cholera outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Iraq. If not properly contained, cases could spike and spread across borders,” warned Coordinator, WHO Control of Epidemic Diseases, William Augusto Perea Caro.
He said the WHO needs five million dollars to ramp up its response to the cholera outbreaks. They said the situation in Africa is even worse than the Middle East.
“The cholera situation in the African Region is especially worrisome. WHO is working closely with national authorities and partners to manage the cases and provide access to safe water, adequate sanitation and basic hygiene needs,” said Dr Ibrahima-Socé Fall, Director of the Health Security and Emergencies Cluster at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.
In Tanzania, there have been almost 5000 cases of cholera and 74 deaths in the past few months.