baghdad -- Five cases of cholera have been reported among children in Iraq in the past three weeks, a worrying sign as temperatures rise and the war leaves sewage and sanitation systems a shambles.
All of the cases were among children younger than 12 in the southern city of Najaf, and all were reported by medical officials on alert for signs of the potentially lethal ailment, Claire Hajaj of UNICEF said yesterday.
Cholera, which is spread through bacteria in contaminated water, is easily treatable but can cause rapid dehydration and death if not treated. Cholera pandemics have killed tens of thousands of people worldwide, most recently in South America in the early 1990s.
Although the number of cases in Iraq is small and none has been fatal, the emergence of cholera this early in the year is ominous, Hajaj said. In the past, cholera has not usually been seen until July.
As the summer heat intensifies, chronic electricity shortages make it difficult to operate pumps at sewage and drinking-water treatment plants, which leads to the use of dirty water.
The number of diarrhea cases, which can be a sign of cholera, is twice the seasonal average this year, Hajaj said.
"Water is an enormous need, and people take it where they can get it, and they are getting it from places where it is not always clean," she said.
In Baghdad, at least 135,000 residents depend on water from tanker trucks. Thousands of Iraqis bore holes in the ground outside their houses and businesses, and pump out groundwater.
Although many Iraqis lacked uninterrupted supplies of safe water under Saddam Hussein, they were not in danger of being blown up by car bombs or caught in sectarian warfare if they left their homes to buy bottled water.
Municipal water often is carried through cracked and dirty pipes that were neglected under Hussein and have been further damaged by four years of war.
Efforts to repair the infrastructure are hampered by insurgent attacks on municipal workers, who are targeted because they work for the U.S.-backed government.
Tina Susman and Zeena Kareem write for the Los Angeles Times.