Things just keep getting worse in war-weary Iraq, which is now in the midst of a deadly cholera outbreak that is being compounded by the country's fight against the Islamic State (IS).
On Sunday, the spokesman for Iraq's Parliamentary Health and Environment Committee, Abd al Haidi al Saadaw, confirmed in a statement that there have been a total of 41 recorded cholera cases between Baghdad, Najaf, and Babel provinces. Iraq's Ministry of Health has verified that at least four of those cases have been fatal.
The rate of infection, however, is believed to be much higher what has officially been declared, according to sources in Iraq who spoke with VICE News. Some medical organizations have reported that there have been at least 313 cases nationwide, with most reported in Baghdad province. While these numbers cannot be independently verified, the head of al Baghdadi sub-district in Anbar province, Mal Allah al-Obeidi, disclosed that another 250 people have reported symptoms that are consistent with cholera, though their diagnoses remain unconfirmed at this time.
"The affected people are suffering from vomiting, fever, and hypotension, while many patients also suffered from body spasm, paralysis, and fainting," al-Obeidi said in an interview with Alsumaria News. He warned that there was a high likelihood of "occurrence of deaths of diseased people [due to] lack of laboratories and doctors to diagnose the illness."
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The government has convened a crisis management cell to halt the outbreak, according to a statement by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. But given the current security climate in Iraq, the effort could prove challenging. IS controls the areas around the Fallujah dam in Anbar, which supplies fresh water to some of the hardest hit places, which will make it difficult to get clean water to those most in need.
Cholera is caused by bacteria that is spread through contaminated food and water. If not treated properly, the infection can lead to severe diarrhea, dehydration, and death. The Iraqi government struggled to contain two previous outbreaks, which, according to the UN Children's Fund, were the result of poor water quality and ineffective sewage treatment.
Cholera tends to spread in overcrowded areas, particularly those that lack minimum standards for water and hygiene, such as communities of internally displaced persons. Most of these locations have struggled to provide clean water, sanitation, and other basic essentials, greatly increasing the vulnerability for infection. According to the UN's refugee agency, close to 500,000 Iraqis, primarily from Anbar and Nineveh provinces, have been displaced because of the ongoing conflict with IS.
The Iraq Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization are now developing a "cholera task force" that can coordinate with local clinics in impacted areas to prevent additional outbreaks. Local media have also been asked to spread information about the outbreak, and to encourage people to seek treatment if they develop symptoms associated with cholera.
Iraq's two previous cholera outbreaks occurred in 2007 and 2012. During the 2007 outbreak, more than 4,000 people were infected, and 24 died. In 2012, there were four deaths out of approximately 400 cases.
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