- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Baghdad is woefully unprepared for any outbreak of bird flu, an Iraqi doctor says, despite efforts by the World Health Organization to help health officials after two confirmed deaths in Iraq.

“If there is an outbreak, let’s say 100 cases of bird flu — Baghdad would die. I am a doctor, I know,” said a middle-aged Baghdad physician, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Two human cases of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza or bird flu have been confirmed in Iraq, one in northern Kurdistan. Several other people found with flulike symptoms in southern Iraq are being tested.

“We need to get the test results back so we know what is actually going on in Iraq,” said Dick Thompson of the WHO in Geneva. “Is it widespread? That will be clarified.”

After 10 years of sanctions under Saddam Hussein, three years of war and daily bombings, the public health system is incapable of coping with a major problem like bird flu, Iraqi and U.S. doctors have said.

“The hospitals are now working at only 30 percent efficacy; we have no specialized areas, no isolation centers. We don’t have any such facilities,” the Baghdad doctor said.

People are dying every day in the hospitals and their bodies are being disposed of without any tissue testing, he said. “The hospitals try to get rid of the bodies quickly because there is always more death.”

A shipment of 15 tissue samples has been sent through the World Health Organization to the U.S. military lab in Cairo to be tested for bird flu, said Marian Chang, WHO’s press representative in Geneva. An earlier sample was sent out in late January after long delays because of a lack of proper containers.

The lack of infrastructure and unstable security situation in Iraq “has definitely been a complicating factor,” but Iraqi officials are fully cooperating, Miss Chang said in a telephone interview.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi engineer with two children said bird flu is “a threat more dangerous than the terrorist attacks, because some Iraqis don’t believe the threat and others don’t care.”

“One team of the Ministry of Health came to our area and warned the people to kill all the birds and chickens in their houses. Some of them threw them in an open area and after a while people came and took the birds and chickens to eat,” he said.

WHO has procured 7,000 packs of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu for Iraq, and the Ministry of Health has procured an additional 60,000 packs in case of an outbreak, according to a WHO representative in Iraq.

In the northern Kurdish cities of Sulaimaniyah and Irbil, Tamiflu is currently available and also being procured by the regional health ministries, said Naeema al-Gasseer, WHO representative and U.N. health cluster coordinator in Iraq.

Relatively free from the chaos and violence that has affected central and southern Iraq, Kurdistan has a higher level of public health services.

Cases of bird flu have appeared across Asia and parts of Europe, killing at least 92 persons since 2003. Hungary yesterday became the seventh European Union nation — in addition to Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, France and Slovenia — to confirm the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu.

Authorities worry that the disease will mutate and spread from person to person. “What we are worried about is a cluster of cases where it might look like a human being is a factor in transmission,” Mr. Thompson said.

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