WHO health briefing on Iraq

UN humanitarian briefing
17 April 2003


World Health Organization staff in Baghdad report that security is still a major problem. As well as the damage we reported yesterday to the WHO office, we now know that the main warehouse of the ministry of health - which housed many of the millions of dollars worth of medicines and medical supplies currently needed across the country - was looted and the building was badly damaged. Looters arrived at the WHO office with a truck and with equipment which allowed them to cut into the WHO safe. At the WHO building, the only items of real value which remain are the two large generators. It appears they were too big for the looters to take. WHO staff will be taking these generators to Yarmouk Hospital, which is one of four hospitals in the capital now functioning, to provide a back-up power supply. Currently, the hospital has no regular source of power.

Reports of disease outbreaks

The World Health Organization has received a number of reports of outbreaks of diarrhoeal disease and one report of leishmaniasis over the past 24 hours. In the northern town of Kirkuk, the number of cases of diarrhoea has increased sharply since the conflict began. There are now some 50 cases per day being reported, as compared to 10 per day before the conflict. There have also been increases reported in Um Qasr, in Nasiriya and in Basra, where according to one report approximately 6% of patients coming to health facilities recently had watery diarrhoea.

There is still a chronic lack of information on the situation in all these places, underlining the vital need for access for humanitarian agencies so that we can verify and respond to reports of disease outbreaks. There could be a number of different reasons for the increase in cases of diarrhoeal disease, including the continuing lack of access to clean, safe water and the rising temperatures across the country. This is a time of year when cases of diarrhoeal disease traditionally increase. But due to the current situation in the country, there is a risk of larger outbreaks. Following WHO-led training on complex emergencies in November 2002, an early warning system was implemented in Basra to report on potential outbreaks of priority diseases. The system appears to be functioning and as soon as the security situation allows, WHO is ready to help expand the system to a much wider area of southern Iraq.

There has also been a report that so far this year there have been some 700 cases of black fever, also known as kala azar, or visceral leishmaniasis, in Al Amara, Maysan Governorate. This does not pose an immediate risk of a large outbreak. However, individuals who are suspected to be infected need urgent treatment. Transmission usually occurs between May and October and, due to the incubation time and increased risk at the end of the transmission season, most cases are reported between December and April. The current cases are probably the last of the 2002 transmission season.

For further information, please contact WHO spokespersons Melanie Zipperer in Amman (00 4179 477 1722) or Iain Simpson in Geneva (00 4179 475 5534)

The following WHO specialists are available to respond to media questions: Dr Ghulam Popal, Head of the WHO country office in Iraq (+962 795 7092); Dr Mohamed Jama, Deputy Regional Director, WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office, Cairo (+202 276 5026 ); Dr Jim Tulloch, WHO Regional Health Coordinator, (+4179 509 0640); Dr David Nabarro, WHO Executive Director, Geneva (+41 22 791 2363, +41 79 217 3446)