IRIN – 2005-04-20 09:42:42
BAGHDAD (April 18, 2005) — Doctors in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, fear an outbreak of hepatitis, following an increase in cases reported by the Infectious Diseases Control Centre (IDSC) last week. Officials said the increase was due to poor sewage control, particularly in suburbs of the city.
Dr Abdul Jalil, director of the IDSC, told IRIN that there had been a 30 percent increase in hepatitis cases in March 2005 compared to the same period in 2004, and that open sewers and polluted water were exacerbating the problem.
Staff at the IDCC said that in March 2004, there were 615 cases of hepatitis registered, compared to 899 cases in the same month this year. In addition, last August, 1,298 cases were diagnosed, a sharp rise due to the weather conditions.
Jalil added that there had also been an increase in typhoid, tuberculosis (TB) and other water-borne diseases. He called for immediate action to control the situation.
“The system of sanitation in the capital should be fixed quickly. The Ministry of Public Works is moving slowly to solve this problem and it’s affecting the health of Iraqis,” Jalil explained.
In addition, Baghdad still has old sewage and water channels which haven’t been repaired. The channels often run beside each other and lack of electricity has caused water to be pumped at low pressure, causing sewage to seep into the fresh water delivery system.
According to Dr Haydar Shamari, director of the Iraqi National Centre for Blood Donation (INCBD), hepatitis was the first disease detected in contaminated blood samples. He added that hepatitis C, was very common, followed by type B, which is worrying doctors.
No Vaccines Are Available
No vaccine is currently available to prevent hepatitis C and treatment for chronic hepatitis C is too expensive for most people in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Jalil added that they were expecting a possible outbreak in suburbs of the capital because sewage systems had not been restored in many areas and the summer season would exacerbate the spread of the diseases since it creates a more suitable environment for the virus to thrive in.
Delays Caused by Shift from Health Ministry
The Ministry of Environment (MoE) is now responsible for sewage and water purification requirements in the country: a task that was previously assigned to the Ministry of Health (MoH).
This change has also developed a delay in work, according to MoH staff. “They have to start everything from scratch since it’s a new experience for them. No one can be an expert on the first day and it will require time for them to specialise on this issue, but in the meantime Iraqi people are suffering,” Youssef Sinawee, a senior officer at the MoH, told IRIN.
Officials are also concerned about lack of investment in the sector and very difficult communication between provinces, which can delay weekly reporting of hepatitis cases in the country.
Dr Munir Yehia, of the prevention department at the INCBD, told IRIN that as well as rubbish on the streets and open sanitation disposal systems, people who handle food at restaurants without any protection were also at high risk of spreading hepatitis.
“Our workers don’t know how to handle food properly and it’s the most common situation found in Iraq today. A law should be established to force them to offer food with more hygiene and safety in mind,” Yehia added.
US Invasion Caused Major Disruptions to Water Supplies
According to a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report from 2004, disruption to drinking water supplies during the 2003 conflict meant that roughly 20 percent of urban households had no access to safe water.
In addition, over 50 percent of loss in water distribution networks was due to old age and corrosion of pipes, illegal tapping of water and collateral damage from the last conflict and looting. In rural areas, more than half of households are without fresh water or adequate sanitation, according to the UNICEF report.
Jalil added that medicine for the treatment of patients, particularly for hepatitis B, could not be found in the country. He said they had asked Kimadia, the national drug company of the MoH, for help but there was a shortage of medicines and funds.
The WHO in Iraq told IRIN that it had offered to help the MoH by supplying tablets for water purification and awareness for families on how to prevent such diseases from spreading. But health officials maintain that all efforts are insignificant if the main cause of the disease, poor sewage treatment in the country, isn’t rectified.
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