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April 18, 2024

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Iraqi health officials confirm bird flu

By Yahya Barzanji The Associated Press

RANIYA, Iraq – Battered by rampant violence and political instability, a new threat in Iraq was confirmed yesterday – the first case of the deadly bird flu virus in the Middle East.

A 15-year-old Kurdish girl who died this month had the deadly H5N1 strain, Iraq and U.N. health officials said. The discovery prompted a large-scale slaughter of domestic birds in the northern area where the teen died as the World Health Organization formed an emergency team to try to contain the disease’s spread.

“We regretfully announce that the first case of bird flu has appeared in Iraq,” Iraqi Health Minister Abdel Mutalib Mohammed told reporters. “The results show infection with the deadly H5N1.”

World Health Organization officials confirmed the finding, though it was not immediately clear how the girl, Shangen Abdul Qader, who died Jan. 17 in the northern Kurdish town of Raniya, contracted the disease.

The prospect of a bird flu outbreak in Iraq is alarming because the country is gripped by armed insurgency and lacks the resources of other governments in the region. Government institutions, however, are most effective in the Kurdish-run area of the north where the girl lived.

Health teams cordoned off areas in and around Raniya yesterday and began Iraq’s first bird slaughter as the government pleaded to the WHO to help prevent a large-scale outbreak.

Policeman Khalil Khudur said he led a team that killed 3,000 birds, mainly chickens and ducks, in Sarkathan, a village of about 600 homes four miles north of Raniya. Villagers and cars were also sprayed with chemicals to kill any trace of the disease.

But there were fears they might be too late.

Health officials are investigating the death of the girl’s uncle, Hamasour Mustapha, 50, on Friday after showing symptoms similar to bird flu. At least two other people have been admitted to a hospital in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, with similar symptoms. Another 30 samples from northern Iraq are also being tested for bird flu.

WHO is readying an emergency team to carry out epidemiological tests and examine Iraqis exhibiting bird flu-like symptoms, spokesman Dick Thompson said.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, met members of an Iraqi committee following up the bird flu outbreak and was briefed on efforts to protect Iraqis from any spread of the disease, according to al-Iraqiya TV which aired footage of the talks.

Abdul Qader and her uncle lived in the same house in Raniya, about 60 miles south of the Turkish border and just 15 miles west of Iran.

Health officials don’t yet know how the girl contracted the deadly virus, but just north of Raniya is a reservoir used as a stopover by migratory birds from Turkey, where at least 21 cases of H5N1 have been recorded.

Experts fear the virus could mutate into a form spread easily among humans, triggering a pandemic capable of killing millions. So far, most human cases have been traced to contact with birds.

The preliminary laboratory findings indicating the girl had bird flu were made by the U.S. Navy Medical Research Unit laboratory in Cairo, Egypt. WHO said test samples have been sent to its reference laboratory in Britain for final confirmation, which could take up to two weeks.

“It is always worrying to have a new case in a new country because it raises concerns among the public,” Thompson said. “But we have to understand that so far this is just one case.”

The girl’s mother rejected the bird flu findings, but acknowledged that a number of her chickens had mysteriously died before her daughter’s death.

“My daughter did not die from bird flu,” Fatima Abdullah, 50, told The Associated Press. “She did not like chickens nor had anything to do with them. She did not take care of these birds.”

Health experts said controlling such an outbreak and undertaking a mass bird cull would be difficult due to Iraq’s limited veterinary and monitoring infrastructure.

“If an outbreak of avian influenza were to be proven, there would be a lot of support needed,” said Maria Zampaglione, spokeswoman at the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health.

Kurdistan Health Ministry official Najimuldin Hassan said thousands of domesticated birds are expected to be killed, but authorities were not equipped to kill migratory birds.

“We do not know how” to kill them, he said.

Khudur complained that his team was also not properly equipped to safely conduct the slaughter.

“We lack plastic boots, masks and gloves. If we tear the gloves on our hands, there are none to replace them,” he said.

A top U.N. official pinpointed the issue – and its financial implications on cash-strapped Iraqi villagers and farmers – as the gravest one facing authorities as they try to stop the disease’s spread.

“The problem comes down to funding more than anything else,” Rod Kennard, who manages the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s assistance program for Iraq, said from neighboring Jordan.

“If they have enough money in order to pay people off so that people will not be reluctant to cull their birds, it’s less of an issue.”

Iraq has some 550 commercial flocks, he said. The sale of birds at open markets, especially in small towns, poses another challenge.

It could take up to three weeks to find out how the virus entered Iraq and how it would be contained, Thompson said.

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