The Ministry of Health has announced that a 15-year-old girl who died on 17 January in the northern town of Raniya, close to Sulaimaniyah, was a victim of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, despite earlier reports to the contrary.
“We are sorry to inform the Iraqis and the world that the case of bird flu in northern Kurdistan has been confirmed as being the first case in Iraq,” said Abdel Mohammed, Iraqi minister of health on 30 January. “We alert the population to be aware of migratory birds.”
Some 20 km from the border with Turkey, where 21 cases have been found by Turkish authorities, the remote area in northern Iraq is a major thoroughfare for migratory birds.
The announcement was made after a sample was tested at a US Naval Medical Research Unit laboratory in Egypt.
The girl’s 39-year-old uncle, who cared for her during her illness, also reportedly developed symptoms on 24 January, dying of a severe respiratory disease three days later.
According to the WHO website, the health ministry has also reported a third case of respiratory illness, which is currently under investigation. The patient, a 54-year-old woman from the same area, was hospitalised on 18 January.
Samples from all three patients have been sent to a WHO laboratory in the UK for diagnostic confirmation and further analysis, according to the health organisation.
“The result is a preliminary positive result, but the WHO will give the final result after tests are checked in the UK,” explained WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng from Geneva.
The WHO has responded to Iraqi calls for help by dispatching a team to northern Iraq to conduct tests in the areas where the virus was found and on people in hospitals exhibiting symptoms, according to the WHO website.
Kurdistan Minister of Health Mohammed Khashnow said that 15 people had been admitted to the main hospital in Sulaimaniyah within the past week with suspected bird flu infection. He added that all suspected cases were being kept in quarantine.
“We want the population to keep calm,” Khashnow urged. “But, in the meantime, be aware of the possibility of an outbreak.”
A local health official in Kurdistan, who asked to remain anonymous, said that a total of 35 samples had been sent for analysis outside Iraq. All of them, he added, had displayed symptoms similar to those of the girl who died.
On 18 January, after initial reports from Raniya, a state of emergency was declared by the government of northern Iraq. Authorities acquired two million doses of bird-flu vaccine and 10 tones of disinfectant to treat poultry farms.
The Iraqi heath minister, meanwhile, urged people not to wait before informing authorities of suspected cases. He went on to say, however, that Iraq’s poultry imports – mostly from France and Brazil – were safe to eat and showed no sign of infection.
“Both countries are safe until now, and Iraqis can eat this frozen poultry without problems,” he said.
Avian influenza is an infectious disease carried by birds and caused by strains of the influenza virus. While all birds are thought to be susceptible to infection, many wild species carry the virus with no apparent signs of harm, according to the WHO.
Scientists are increasingly convinced that at least some migratory waterfowl are now carrying the virus in a highly pathogenic form, introducing it to poultry flocks in areas that lie along migratory routes.
In 2003, infections of people who had been exposed to sick birds were reported for the first time. Cases were reported with greater frequency throughout last year.
Iraq is the seventh country so far to report human H5N1 infection.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions