BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq, which is already facing a prolonged battled against the Islamic State group and mass protests against government corruption and inefficiency, is now struggling with a new challenge: a growing cholera outbreak.
As of Tuesday, at least 54 cases have been confirmed in Baghdad, as well as in the southern provinces of Najaf, Diwaniyah, Babil and Samawah, Health Ministry spokesman Rifaq al-Araji told The Associated Press. At least 20 cholera cases were confirmed in the town of Abu Ghraib alone, which lies on the border between Baghdad province and Anbar province — much of which is under the control of the Islamic State group. Four women were reported to have died in Abu Ghraib, but al-Araji said authorities have not yet confirmed if the deaths were cholera-related.
The cause lies partially with Iraq's antiquated and badly maintained water and sewage systems, and the outbreak comes at a time when Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government is already struggling with large demonstrations protesting the government's inability to provide security or basic public services.
In a bid to contain public anger, al-Abadi has ordered emergency measures be taken, particularly in the Abu Ghraib area. These include conducting daily water-quality tests, distributing bottled water to families displaced from their homes due to fighting with IS and setting up additional water purification stations. Iraq's Education Ministry announced that the opening of primary schools would be delayed to Oct. 18, "to give the Health Ministry the chance to complete precautionary measures in all schools."
Panicked Iraqis have been rushing to government-run medical centers, since the outbreak was first announced in mid-September, to receive free water purification tablets. In Baghdad's eastern Sadr City neighborhood, about 50 residents visit the local medical clinic per day to pick up the tablets, the clinic's director, Dr. Maitham Jamal Abbass, said, adding that his teams have been testing the drinking water and taking stool samples from those exhibiting possible cholera symptoms, such as diarrhea.
Fadhil Hassan Kaies recently visited the Sadr City clinic in the hope of acquiring the purification tablets.
"We are afraid ... we've been on high alert since the declaration of the disease," said Kaies, a 41-year-old father of four. "We have not gotten rid of Daesh, yet along with other miseries, now we have this disease," he added, using the Arabic acronym for the IS group.
"Calamities come together," he said.
A large-scale cholera outbreak in Iraq in 2007 was blamed for at least 24 deaths. Smaller outbreaks followed in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the World Health Organization said in a 2014 report. Along with cholera, the WHO said Iraq faces regular threats from other water-borne and food-borne diseases, such as measles, typhoid fever, hepatitis, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and leishmaniosis, a parasitic disease, due mainly to poor public services and hygiene.
Cholera is a gastrointestinal disease, usually spread by contaminated water and food, and can cause severe diarrhea that, in extreme cases, can lead to fatal dehydration and kidney failure within hours. It can be prevented by treating drinking water with chlorine and with better hygienic practices.
On a recent visit to hospitals in Abu Ghraib, Iraq's Health Minister Adela Hmoud said she expected "the number of cases to increase within the coming days," adding that Iraqi authorities and international health and humanitarian groups, "are working hard to control the situation and stop the outbreak."
Sandwiched in between programs dedicated to the war against the Islamic State group, local television networks are now also airing animated public service announcements about cholera, its symptoms, and how to prevent it. Public health teams have also been deployed to some of Iraq's most remote areas, meeting with locals in mosques or at the homes of tribal sheiks to raise awareness.
Iraqis have long suffered from battered or neglected infrastructure, and development has been stalled by years of war and violence. Today, many neighborhoods in Baghdad have sewage running through open canals in the streets, some of which manages to seep into the drinking water supply. More remote areas often depend on poorly-maintained wells for drinking water. Some blame corrupt officials for turning a blind eye to crumbling infrastructure and neglected public health standards in restaurants and markets.
The latest outbreak has merely added to the list of grievances and concerns facing Iraqis — adding to the level of despair that has prompted thousands of desperate Iraqis to join the influx of migrants seeking safer lives in Europe.
Others are taking to social media to express their anger and frustration with a blend of bitterness and sarcasm.
On Twitter, an Iraqi named Hussein Adam recently wrote: "Cholera, mass migrations, economic collapse, terrorism, and corruption, etc. Dear God: Is there more?"
Follow Sinan Salaheddin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sinansm .