/ 8 May 2003

WHO sees cholera epidemic in southern Iraq

The UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday it expected a cholera epidemic in southern Iraq, where 17 cases have already been registered in two hospitals, and warned that other infectious waterborne diseases could break out.

”We expect a cholera epidemic in southern Iraq and we fear hundreds of cases,” WHO spokeswoman Fadila Shaib told a press conference in Basra.

Tests on the 17 cases were being carried out in Kuwait and the results were due on Thursday, Shaib said, expressing concern but not surprise at the appearance of the disease.

WHO disease specialist Denis Coulombier estimated that there were 10 times the number of cholera cases than the 17 ”discovered by chance”.

Coulombier said three other hospitals in Basra were believed to have diagnosed the disease among several patients. Drinking contaminated water, sometimes directly from the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and the non-collection of garbage in this city of

1,5 million people were behind the outbreak, according to the WHO.

Coulombier said that apart from cholera, an acute infectious disease of the small intestine, cases of bloody diarrhoea were also being reported.

In 2002, ”around 250 cases of cholera were confirmed in Basra.

Under Saddam’s regime, the hygiene system worked very well but all control programmes have now disappeared,” he said.

Cholera can be fatal if goes untreated. WHO said it had enough medicines to treat cholera cases but warned that current health conditions would help transmit the disease.

People in the region who do not have access to potable water were urged to boil water before drinking it.

”The real problem is health security,” Coulombier said.

”Tomorrow, it will be hepatitis, malaria and other diseases whose incubation period is longer” than the two or three days for cholera.

In Baghdad, WHO official Ghulam Popal said cholera cases occurred every year in Iraq and could normally be prevented from getting out of control.

”Now all these measures are very weak because of the concentration of resources on war wounded,” he said.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime following the invasion of US-led forces, many Iraqi hospitals have been badly looted, and are also overburdened by the number of casualties.

Meanwhile the nation is suffering from impure water supplies, uncollected garbage and a lack of electricity.

”The health situation will deteriorate because of the lack of water and sanitation and the breakdown in public health programs,” Popal warned, stressing that infections spread more easily during the hot summer months.

”We know we will face more outbreaks, particularly waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid fever and hepatitis,” Popal said.

He added that children and the poor were especially at risk. – Sapa-AFP