Cholera outbreaks are an almost annual event in Iraq. In August 2008 the latest one began. The first case was found in Baghdad, but it soon spread to southern Iraq, which was hit the hardest. Incompetence by local officials made the situation worse. By November 2008 900 people were affected. That month the government stopped reporting on cases, fearing the bad publicity. The latest report by the United Nations’ World Health Organization however found that the outbreak is largely over.
On August 18, 2008 the first confirmed case of cholera was found in Baghdad. Later that month Babil and Maysan reported cases. The outbreak then spread to Diyala, Wasit, Anbar, Basra, Najaf, Karbala, and Qadisiyah the next month. Eventually thirteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces were affected, including Dhi Qar, Irbil, and Muthanna. On September 22 the most cases were detected in one day at 79. The numbers then declined until October 14 when a second wave was detected. Most of these new cases were found in Qadisiyah that has received 33% of the total. This new outbreak seemed to scare Baghdad. In November, the Health Ministry said that they would no longer report on the epidemic because of concern over the media, and families affected. After October 22 however, the number of cases tapered off. The last seven incidents have all been in Babil, which has had 32% of the cases overall.
Total Cases By Province as of December 21, 2008
Diyala 1 case
Dhi Qar 1 case
Irbil 2 cases
Wasit 3 cases
Maysan 3 cases
Anbar 8 cases
Muthanna 21 cases
Najaf 41 cases
Karbala 61 cases
Basra 64 cases
Baghdad 109 cases
Babil 294 cases
Qadisiyah 317 cases
Compared to the last cholera incident, this one has been rather mild. Since August there have been a total of 925 cases. 476, 53%, were children five years or younger. In August 2007 an outbreak began in Tamim, and spread to nine other provinces. There were over 3,000 cases that year, and 14 deaths. In 2008 eleven have died so far.
The main cause of the cholera outbreak in 2008 was the decrepit water system, and incompetence by officials in Babil. According to Iraq’s Health Ministry 17% of the country’s water pipes are in bad condition. The International Red Cross reported in October 2008 that 40% of the population does not have access to clean water. Many Iraqis, especially the poor, displaced, and those in the country rely upon untreated water from rivers and wells, which greatly increases the likelihood of diseases like cholera spreading. In the summer, a drought hit Iraq, which made the water situation even worse. In Babil members of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council also used chlorine that they knew had passed its expiration date to clean the water supply. Until December Babil was the center of the cholera outbreak as a result.
Like almost everything else, Iraq’s infrastructure has been degraded by three wars, international sanctions, looting after the U.S. invasion, along with the fighting caused by the insurgency and sectarian war. The country still needs billions of dollars in reconstruction. The problem is that the U.S. led effort is ending, while Baghdad is facing budget cuts because of the declining price of oil. Together this has left Iraq a rather poor and broken country despite its huge petroleum reserves. The yearly cholera outbreaks are just one sign of the depleted situation Iraq finds itself in.
Balarkrishnan, Angela, “Millions of Iraqis at risk from contaminated water, says Red Cross,” Guardian, 10/29/08
Cockburn, Patrick, “Corruption blamed as cholera rips through Iraq,” Independent, 10/10/08
IraqSlogger.com, “Health Ministry Stops Releasing Cholera Numbers,” 11/18/08
IRIN, “Health threat posed by aging water supply networks,” 10/23/08
World Health Organization, “Ministry of Health Iraq and the WHO Representative’s Office Iraq,” 1/2/09