Iraq's Kurds guard against bird flu

Strung out along the border with Turkey, Iraq’s Kurdish provinces are scrambling to put in place measures to prevent bird flu from spreading south across the mountains.

“We are afraid and in a state of high alert in the face of what could be a time bomb,” says Azad Ezzeddin Mulla Afandi, the chief agricultural official for the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of two Kurdish parties running the northern provinces, which provide a large amount of poultry and eggs for the rest of the country.

“Despite all the precautions we have taken, we are terrified that the disease will appear here,” he says.

Just north, over the mountains, lies Turkey, the only country outside the Far East where the H5N1 virus has killed people, claiming five lives out of 21 cases.

The toll from the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has climbed to 78 people worldwide.

Imports of poultry from Turkey were banned in October, while the trade of live chickens in Kurdistan itself was outlawed last week.

“Strict orders were given to poultry farmers to install basins at the gates of their farms to decontaminate vehicles going in and out,” says Afandi.

According to him, these measures are being carried out not just in the provinces of Arbil and Dohuk, which are under KDP control, but also in Suleimaniyah, the Kurdish rival run by the KDP’s sometime rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The two provinces, which are close to the parts of Turkey that have reported cases of bird flu, are also major producers of eggs and poultry, supplying much of the Iraqi market.

“The virus ignores borders,” emphasises Saman Halbaji, spokesperson for the KDP’s health department. “The disease could arrive with migratory birds, but fortunately so far not a single case has been detected” in Iraqi Kurdistan.

At Ibrahim al-Khalil’s wintry frontier post, Kurdish border guards are careful to decontaminate the trucks that trundle across the border carrying Turkish goods into the country.

Dr Abdel Khaleq Abdel Sattar is the frontier post’s veterinarian and he supervises the minute inspection of each vehicle and its cargo to make sure no birds are transported into the country.

“We are doing everything in our power to prevent the spread of the virus into Kurdistan,” he says, admitting that he cannot exclude the possibility of the virus appearing in Iraq.

Authorities have mobilised the media in a public awareness campaign in their fight against bird flu that uses television, radio and newspapers.

The message is simple and oft-repeated: in case of bird-flu symptoms, such as the onset of fever, chills and wracking coughs, report to local health centres.

Housewives receive instructions of their own in these radio and television messages, and are told to cook chicken on a high heat of at least 80 degrees Celsius before eating and to wash any eggs (as well as their hands) with soap, according to World Health Organisation guidelines.

The awareness campaign appears to be succeeding, and the fear of the flu is palpable among the people, some of whom don’t think authorities are doing enough to prevent its outbreak.

“The measures being taken are not enough and we are afraid the disease is going to break out,” says Salima Ali, a 39-year-old Arbil housewife.

In Arbil, shops selling live chickens have been closed and shopkeepers have started complaining about a drop in demand for chickens and eggs—though no one could give any concrete figures.

Officials from the KDP and the PUK have formed a coordination committee for bird flu with the eventual goal of creating a single executive body for the whole northern autonomous region.

Scientists fear that the more the virus spreads, the greater the chance H5N1 will mutate into a form that is easily transmissible between humans. This could spark a global pandemic that could claim millions of lives.—AFP

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