Cholera Outbreak in Iraq Worries UN Insiders

GENEVA, Switzerland, May 9, 2003 (ENS) Seven cases of clinically confirmed cholera, mainly among very young children, have been reported by doctors in Basra, Iraq. A team from the World Health Organization, which now has a permanent presence in Basra, visited several hospitals together with local health experts in order to assess the health situation in the southern city.

"Due to the current security situation and difficulties experienced in restoring safe water supplies to the population, a larger cholera epidemic is predicted," the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

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Children in Iraq are at risk of cholera due to damaged water and sewer infrastructure. (Photo courtesy IFRC)
The dominant problem in Basra is security, the WHO team said. "We met surgeons who said they cannot perform their duties because they are threatened by the families of their patients." They complained about the lack of security, as did the newly elected Director of Health Dr. Yassin Musowi during his meeting in Basra with WHO, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and various nongovernmental organizations in the health field, the UN health team said.

There are no facilities to conduct tests to confirm the presence of cholera or other infectious agents, the WHO investigators found. Yet, there is no doubt among the doctors and the visiting team that this is cholera. "In the absence of laboratory confirmation, we can only rely on our experience and knowledge of our patients to be able to recognize these diseases. We can clinically confirm four cases of cholera this week," one of the managers said.

At UN headquarters in New York, the Security Council President for May, Pakistani Ambassador Munir Akram, yesterday cited cholera as one of the concerns facing UN agencies in Iraq, saying the outbreak "has to be contained."

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An Iraqi Red Crescent maternity hospital in the al-Mansour district of Baghdad was damaged April 2 in an attack by American and British forces on a nearby building. (Photo courtesy IFRC)
UNICEF said that in light of the situation in Basra it is providing 200 tons of chlorine gas for the water stations and for hospitals.

The UN reports that the number of victims of mines and unexploded ordnance in the three northern governorates during March and April increased by more than 90 percent compared to the same period last year. An important number of victims were children.

In Baghdad, teams from the UN Development Programme are assessing electricity and water sanitation sites together with technical personnel from the relevant Iraqi ministries.

Also in Baghdad, a C-130 cargo plane loaded with UNICEF and World Food Programme (WFP) supplies landed Thursday with oral rehydration kits, black fever medicine and emergency health kits destined for pediatric sites.

Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced that its first staffer had arrived in Iraq, in the northern town of Erbil, to work within the office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq to ensure that issues relating to the protection of civilians were identified and addressed promptly.

Six more OHCHR international experts are due to travel to Iraq, and an expert should arrive in Baghdad next week, the agency said in Geneva. This is the first time that UN human rights staffers had gone to Iraq to be based there for any length of time, said UN spokesman Jose Luis Diaz.

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AEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei (left) consults with Dr. Jacques Baute, Leader, Iraq Action Team (Photo by Dean Calma courtesy IAEA)
Health concerns have been expressed over the exposure of Iraqi citizens to looted radioactive materials. Worried over reports of looting at Iraq's nuclear facilities, the top official at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has asked the United States to confirm the situation and allow an IAEA team to investigate.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei wrote to the Bush administration on April 11, asking it to ensure the security and safety of all nuclear material in Iraq, which has been under IAEA seal since 1991. He indicated that until IAEA inspectors returned, the United States is responsible for maintaining security at Iraq's nuclear storage facilities.

"The IAEA should resume its work in Iraq as soon as possible," said ElBaradei in a statement delivered on his behalf to an informal meeting of the UN Security Council April 22.

"The IAEA continues to be the sole organization with legal powers - derived from both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and successive Security Council resolutions - to verify Iraq's nuclear disarmament," Dr. ElBaradei said.

Restoration of southern Iraq's damaged Mesopotamian marshlands is technically feasible, an international team of scientists reported April 25. Environmental benefits to Iraq and the region would include flood abatement, water quality improvement, increased biodiversity and the resettlement of displaced communities. The report was released by Eden Again, a nonprofit group supporting efforts to restore the marshlands.

In Washington, DC on Thursday, the top U.S. aid official said any plan for restoration of the Mesopotamian marshlands must take into account the desires and views of the Iraqi people, especially the people who live in the marshes, at every step of the process.

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), made his remarks as part of a panel of experts gathered at The Brookings Institution to assess the human and ecological damage that has occurred in the Iraqi marshlands and discuss the possibility of their restoration.

Natsios said restoring Iraq's marshes will be controversial, requiring the agreement of Turkey, Syria and Iran, whose dams limit river flows into southern Iraq.