While spraying a cow with pesticides, health workers target blood-sucking ticks at the heart of Iraq’s worst outbreak of fever that has left people bleeding to death.
The sight of the health workers dressed in full protective gear is a sight that has become common in rural Iraq as the Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever spreads, leaping from animals to people.
This year, Iraq has recorded 19 deaths among 111 CCHF cases in humans, according to the World Health Organization.
The virus has no vaccine and it can start quickly, with severe bleeding both internally and externally, especially from the nose. According to doctors, it causes death in as many as two-fifths of cases.
“The number of registered cases is unprecedented,” said Haidar Hantouche, a health official in Dhi Qar province.
The province, a poor agricultural region in southern Iraq, is responsible for nearly half of Iraqi cases.
In previous years, things could be counted “on the fingers of one hand,” he added.
Transmitted by ticks, hosts of the virus are both wild and agricultural animals such as buffalo, cattle, goats and sheep, all of which are common in Dhi Qar.
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 shows ticks that have fallen from the cow and have been collected in a container.
“Animals become infected through the bite of infected ticks,” according to the World Health Organization.
“The CCHF virus is transmitted to humans through tick bites or through contact with contaminated animal blood or tissues during and immediately after slaughter,” it adds.
The surge in cases this year has shocked officials as the number of cases far outnumbered recorded cases in the 43 years since the virus was first documented in Iraq in 1979.
Only 16 cases had been registered in his province by 2021, resulting in seven deaths, Hantouche said. But this year, Dhi Qar has recorded 43 cases, including eight deaths.
The numbers are still small compared to the Covid-19 pandemic – where Iraq has recorded more than 25,200 deaths and 2.3 million recorded cases, according to WHO figures – but health professionals are concerned.
Endemic to Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans, the death rate from CCHF is between 10 and 40 percent, the WHO says.
WHO’s representative in Iraq, Ahmed Zouiten, said there were several “hypotheses” for the country’s outbreak.
They include 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 extended the period of sign multiplication,” he said.
But “the death rate appears to be decreasing,” he added, as Iraq had mounted a spraying campaign while new hospital treatments had shown “good results”.
Slaughterhouses under the microscope
Since the virus is “mainly transmitted” to humans through ticks on livestock, most cases have been among farmers, slaughterhouse workers and veterinarians, the WHO says.
“Human-to-human transmission can occur as a result of close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected individuals,” it adds.
In addition to uncontrolled bleeding, the virus causes severe fever and vomiting.
Doctors fear there could be an explosion in cases after the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha in July, when families traditionally slaughter an animal to feed guests.
“With the increase in the slaughter of animals and more contact with meat, there are fears of an increase in the number of cases during Eid,” said Azhar al-Assadi, a doctor specializing in hematological diseases at a hospital in Nasiriya.
Most of those infected were “about 33 years old,” he said, although their ages ranged from 12 to 75.
The authorities have launched disinfection campaigns and are taking action against slaughterhouses that do not follow hygiene protocols. Several provinces have also banned the transport of livestock across their borders.
Slaughterhouses are being checked by authorities near Najaf, a town in the south.
The virus has negatively impacted meat consumption, according to workers and officials there.
“I used to slaughter 15 or 16 animals a day, now it’s more than seven or eight,” said butcher Hamid Mohsen.
Fares Mansour, director of the Najaf Veterinary Hospital, which oversees the slaughterhouses, noted, meanwhile, that the number of cattle arriving for slaughter had fallen to about half of normal levels.
“People are afraid of red meat and think it can transmit an infection,” he said.
(This story was not edited by DailyExpertNews staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)