Health authorities go on bird-flu alert in Iraq

Health authorities went on high alert Tuesday following Iraq's first reported case of the deadly bird flu virus, warning farmers across the country to inspect their domestic and commercial birds. Five mobile hospitals with special equipment were due to arrive in northern Iraq later Tuesday, according to Health Minister Abdel Mutalib Mohammed. A 30-kilometer (20-mile) security cordon will be placed around the village where the disease appeared, he added.

The measures follow Monday's announcement that a 15-year-old girl from northern Iraq who died Jan. 17 had contracted the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus. That was the first confirmed human case of the H5N1 in the Middle East and prompted the slaughter of thousands of domestic birds in Iraq's northern Kurdish region. The United States has offered assistance to Iraqi authorities to help deal with the outbreak, while a World Health Organization team of epidemiologists and clinicians was expected to arrive later in the week to start tests.

"We are working with the government of Iraq and the World Health Organization to ensure that the necessary support for diagnosis and treatment of avian influenza is available as needed," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Sylvia Blackwood said.

WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said health authorities are also investigating two more possible bird flue cases, the girl's uncle who died Jan. 27 and a 54-year-old woman from the same region who has been hospitalized.

A bird flu outbreak would be yet another setback for a country already in the middle of a raging insurgency as it attempts to form a new government following the Dec. 15 elections.

However, the announcement appeared to cause little concern among a population hardened by years of death, war, sanctions and deprivation. Many people simply didn't believe the reports. "We will go on eating chickens. There is no bird flu in Iraq. Such news is false," said Salah Abdul-Hussein, a poultry dealer in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood.

"If there is bird flu, we won't eat chickens," said shopper Mohammed Salih. "But there is no bird flu so far." But following Monday's announcement, health officials across the country started implementing a range of measures to combat any spread of the outbreak.

Farmers killed thousands of chickens and ducks in Sarkathan, a village of about 600 homes four miles (six kilometers) north of Raniya, the town where bird flu victim Shangen Abdul Qader lived. Culling teams continued working in villages about 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Raniya on Tuesday. Teams are expected to branch out in all directions from Raniya culling birds. Iraqi authorities will spend about US$680,000 (560,000) to build a mobile hospital in the area where the girl died to treat further people suspected of having the virus.

In the northern city of Mosul, health teams were visiting restaurant, cafes and farms to inspect any poultry and hygiene standards, while hospitals have been put on alert to receive possible bird flu cases, reports the AP. I.L.

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