Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Government Tries to Prevent Bird Flu Outbreak

Emergency measures introduced after deadly virus strikes in the north of the country.
By Amanj Khalil
The Iraqi government is killing hundreds of thousands of chickens in northeastern Iraq in an attempt to avert a widespread outbreak of bird flu in the region.

The measures are being taken following the death of a 14-year-old girl in Rania, a district in Sulaimaniyah province. Health officials announced on January 30 that the girl died of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, confirming months-long fears that the deadly virus had reached Iraqi Kurdistan.

The government has so far killed 500,000 birds in Sulaimaniyah province, in an attempt to staunch the spread of the virus. Rania has been cordoned off, with the authorities limiting travel in and out of the district, as a precautionary measure.

Muhammad Khoshnaw, minister of health in the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, said on January 31 that the government has given 350 Tamiflu pills - life-saving medication used to prevent bird flu - to government workers who are killing chickens.

Mobile clinics are also being set up in Sulaimaniyah and two other northern provinces, Erbil and Duhuk. Two patients with bird flu-like symptoms are being treated at hospitals in Sulaimaniyah province.

Khoshnaw said he expects to have enough medication to treat a potential outbreak. But Tahssin Namiq, head of the Iraqi commission to eradicate bird flu, initially voiced concerns that Iraqi Kurdistan would not have enough preventative medicine.

Residents in northern Iraq are sceptical that the government is telling the truth about bird flu in the region. Rumours that the disease had reached Iraqi Kurdistan have been circulated in the region for months.

"People knew the disease existed, and the girl died because of it. But they kept it a secret from the people," said Kazim Muhammad, a 23-year-old medical student in Sulaimaniyah. "Now if they say they have gotten rid of the virus, people will not believe the authorities because they lied to them from the beginning."

Health officials at first denied that the victim, Shangeen Abdul Qadir, had died of bird flu based on initial test results. But they later confirmed that the H5N1 strain was to blame for her death.

Abdul Qadir was transferred to Sulaimaniyah hospital on January 17 for treatment for bird flu-like symptoms. She was from Sarkapkan village in Rania district, 150 kilometres northeast of Sulaimaniyah city.

Abdul Qadir fell ill on January 10 and was treated in a Rania hospital, but her condition continued to worsen. She died within ten minutes of being transferred to Sulaimaniyah for medical treatment.

Abdul Qadir’s uncle, 40-year-old Abdullah Muhammad, who had been nursing her, died on January 26.

"This is the first case of bird flu to be recorded in Iraq and Kurdistan," Health Minister Abdul Mutalib Ali Muhammad said in a press conference. "This has raised concerns for doctors."

Abdul Qadir’s body was sent to the World Health Organisation in Cairo, which determined that the girl had died of the deadly virus.

"After the deaths of Abdul-Qadir and Muhammad, we began killing all birds in that area," said Agriculture Minister Shamal Abdul Waffa. "We will keep [killing birds] in any area where there are concerns about the disease being spread."

"The government will compensate all citizens whose birds are killed," said Emad Ahmad, deputy prime minister in Iraqi Kurdistan's Sulaimaniyah administration.

The Iraqi health ministry confirmed that no cases have been recorded in central or southern Iraq.

Many residents in northeast of the country stopped buying poultry last fall when the first suspected case appeared in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The government stopped importing chickens when cases appeared in Kuwait and Turkey, and live chicken markets were recently banned in Sulaimaniyah. Concerns grew when Turkey's first bird flu-related deaths were reported in southeast of the country near the Iraqi Kurdistan border last month.

Before the ban, live chickens were caged in open markets where most people shop for meat and vegetables. The chickens were slaughtered and plucked on site for freshness. In villages and rural areas, they roam freely and many people have them on their properties.

Many people in northern Iraq have now cut chicken and eggs out of their diet.

Bahar Mustafa, a 31-year-old teacher in Sulaimaniyah, said she hasn't eaten chicken since the bird flu scare last month.

"After Shangeen's case, I'll never eat it again, even though I like it," she said.

Sardar Kareem, 45, a chicken seller in Sulaimaniyah city, said that before the bird flu scare he was selling around a 1,000 birds each day, but his business was now struggling.

"People are worried about eating chicken because of bird flu, so they're not buying," he said. "If business continues like this, I will shut down my shop."

Amanj Khalil is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.