Adding to its other serious problems, Iraq is facing a new crisis in public health. There are now 357 registered cases of cholera in the country. Medical personnel first detected the illness in Abu Ghraib, about 25 km (15 miles) west of Baghdad.
There was a previous outbreak of cholera in Iraq during 2012. However, whereas the previous outbreak was concentrated in northern Iraq, this outbreak has been mostly affecting the center and south of the country.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that it will take all the necessary steps to address the outbreak and prevent it from spreading to other countries. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has instituted a series of emergency measures that include: conducting daily water-quality tests, setting up water purification stations, distributing bottled water to the internally-displaced, delaying the opening of primary schools until October 18, deploying public health teams, and airing public service announcements about the outbreak on television.
The Source of the Outbreak
Cholera primarily spreads through contaminated water and food. Once it infects an individual, the disease can lead to death by dehydration and kidney failure within a few hours. The spokesperson for the Iraqi Health Ministry, Rifaq al-Arajihas, argued that low water levels in the Euphrates, whose water Iraqis use for drinking and farming, and winter flooding may have led to sewage contaminating the water supply. Moreover, Araji has stated that the unusually high summer temperatures may have activated the bacterium that causes cholera.
Poor governance and ongoing conflicts in Iraq have weakened Iraq’s sewage and water systems, making them more susceptible to contamination by diseases such as cholera. In response to the poor quality of public services, Iraqis have been taking to the streets and Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi has begun to institute a series of reforms. While reforms are necessary, there are a number of ongoing concerns about the reform process and the international community needs to hold the government accountable so that it follows through on the promise of the initiatives.
Unfortunately, there are already signs that the government establishment is impeding the effort from moving forward. In particular, there are reports that Iranian officials, who exercise strong influence over key elements of the current government, are displeased with the reforms and are attempting to stifle them.
The cholera outbreak is the latest in a long list of crises that have been afflicting the Iraqi people and pushing them to seek refugee status in Europe. If the root causes of these crises, dysfunction within the Iraqi government and its poor system of governance are not addressed, more and more refugees will arrive on Europe’s doorstep and instability within the country itself will undoubtedly increase.