Iraq's Dhi Qar province struggles to contain Congo fever

Dozens of people are infected by the virus that can cause death by blood loss

Workers from the health department disinfect calves at a small farm near a house in the village of Al Bojari in Iraq's southern Dhi Qar province, where a woman was infected with the tick-borne Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic virus (CCHF), on May 25, 2022. AFP
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Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar is struggling to contain the Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, which has killed eight people across the country.

The virus has become common in the country’s countryside as it is known to transmit from animals to humans through infected livestock, according to the World Health Organisation.

The virus has no vaccine and onset can be swift, causing severe bleeding both internally and externally and especially from the nose. It causes death in as many as two-fifths of cases, according to medics.

The fever has caused people to bleed to death.

"The number of cases recorded is unprecedented," Haidar Hantouche, a health official in the province, told AFP.

“In previous years, the cases could be counted "on the fingers of one hand", he added.

Dhi Qar is known to be a poor farming region in the south, which accounts for nearly half of Iraq's Congo fever cases.

This year, Iraq has recorded 19 deaths among 111 CCHF cases in humans, according to the WHO.

Transmitted by ticks, hosts of the virus include both wild and farmed animals such as buffalo, cattle, goats and sheep, all of which are common in Dhi Qar.

The surge in cases this year has shocked officials, because numbers far exceed recorded cases in the 43 years since the virus was first documented in Iraq in 1979.

In Dhi Qar, only 16 cases resulting in seven deaths had been recorded in 2021, Mr Hantouche said.

But this year, Dhi Qar has recorded 43 cases, including eight deaths.

In the village of Al Bujari, a team disinfects animals in a stable next to a house where a woman was infected. Wearing masks, goggles and overalls, the workers spray a cow and her two calves with pesticides.

A worker displays ticks that have fallen from the cow and been gathered into a container.

"Animals become infected by the bite of infected ticks," according to the WHO.

"The CCHF virus is transmitted to people either by tick bites or through contact with infected animal blood or tissues during and immediately after slaughter," it said.

Endemic in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans, CCHF's fatality rate is between 10 and 40 per cent, the WHO says.

The WHO's representative in Iraq, Ahmed Zouiten, said there were several "hypotheses" for the country's outbreak.

They included the spread of ticks in the absence of livestock-spraying campaigns during Covid in 2020 and 2021.

And "very cautiously, we attribute part of this outbreak to global warming, which has lengthened the period of multiplication of ticks,” Mr Zouiten said.

But "mortality seems to be declining", he added, as Iraq had mounted a spraying campaign, while new hospital treatments had shown "good results".

Health workers have been spraying cows with pesticides at the heart of Iraq's worst-detected outbreak.

The sight of the health workers, dressed in full protective kit, has become common in the Iraqi countryside in recent weeks.

Additional reporting by agencies

Updated: May 29, 2022, 3:28 PM