More than 1,500 people have cholera in Iraq and the outbreak has spread from the north to Baghdad, where conditions are ripe for the disease to thrive, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
Some 29,000 cases of acute watery diarrhea have been reported by Iraqi authorities since mid-August, including 1,500 confirmed as cholera, the United Nations health agency said. At least 10 people have died, all in the north.
WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said a 25-year-old woman in Baghdad has contracted cholera, the first confirmed case in the Iraqi capital.
"For the time being, we have only one case (in Baghdad). It's likely that others will be identified," Chaib told a news briefing. She said the woman was in a Baghdad hospital and two other people with suspected symptoms were under investigation.
Claire-Lise Chaignat, the WHO's global cholera coordinator, said poor sanitary conditions could cause the disease to spread in Baghdad, home to some 7 million people.
"It's already an epidemic in the north. It is very worrying because parts of Baghdad have fragile water and sanitation systems due to the conflict. Pockets of the population are at high risk," the Swiss expert told Reuters.
Close monitoring is key to battling cholera, characterized in its most severe form by a sudden onset of acute watery diarrhea that can cause death by severe dehydration and kidney failure within hours, Chaignat said.
The virulent disease is mainly transmitted through contaminated water and food. About 75 percent of people infected with cholera do not develop any symptoms but the pathogens stay in their feces for up to two weeks.
"Surveillance is important. It will allow us to orient interventions and target zones at risk," Chaignat said, also stressing the importance of propagating a simple message about good hygiene — the need to boil water, to wash hands often and to take oral rehydration salts if dehydration sets in.
With proper treatment, fewer than one percent of people infected with cholera die. Those with low immunity, such as malnourished children, are at greater risk from the disease.