Tests have confirmed an outbreak of cholera in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Looted laboratories must be rebuilt fast to track and contain the disease, the World Health Organization said today.
WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib announced that tests in Kuwait had confirmed the presence of cholera in four samples collected from Basra. Preliminary tests earlier this month identified 18 cases of cholera.
"The main concern is that the confirmed cases are just a small proportion of the overall number of cases," Chaib said at a press briefing.
She said there had been no confirmed reports of deaths from cholera, but the disease could spread quickly unless the recently looted and destroyed laboratories were repaired soon.
Basra has suffered several outbreaks of cholera in recent years, but had a good surveillance system to allow the spread of the disease to be checked, Chaib said.
"In the past, the Basra department of preventative medicine was running a very efficient cholera control program, including quality control of hospital laboratories, screening of food handlers and food items, routine control of quality of water, and screening of contacts," she said.
"Today, the situation is different. There is no longer a functioning surveillance system to centralize the information, investigate the causes and monitor the situation."
The WHO said that Basra's central laboratory, which had been totally ransacked, needs to be rebuilt at an estimated cost of $200,000. Otherwise, cholera and other deadly contagious diseases could spread unchecked.
Chaib said the outbreak of cholera could come from several sources. Illegal tapping had contaminated the water supply in the Basra area, and many people outside the city center relied on untreated river water. The WHO estimates that only one-third of the population can afford bottled drinking water.
"Bottled water is available, but unaffordable for most of the local population," Chaib said.
Cholera can be fatal if patients do not get adequate treatment, as the disease can cause severe dehydration due to fluid loss.