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Foodborne illness ravages Iraqi refugees; charity blamed

In a refugee camp in Iraq, more than 800 people became sick and two may have died from a suspected foodborne illness that some in the region are saying was orchestrated by a charity group.

Media reports quoted Iraqi Health Minister Adila Hamoud earlier this week as having said two deaths had been caused by the outbreak, but the World Health Organization reported the same day that it had not documented any deaths. The United Nations estimates 6,235 people live in the camp.

Refugees wait for medical attention at the refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region. Photo courtesy of the Women and Health Alliance International

Refugees wait for medical attention at the Hassan Sham U2 IDP camp in the Kurdistan Region. Photo courtesy of the Women and Health Alliance International

“Eight-hundred-and-twenty-five (825) cases have been reported, of these 638 were referred to various health facilities; 386 cases have been admitted to hospitals in Erbil,” according to the WHO’s Tuesday report on the situation at Hassan Sham U2 IDP camp, which is west of Erbil and about 13 miles east of Mosul.

“Currently no deaths have been documented. The affected communities are mainly internally displaced people from west Mosul, of whom a third of all the cases were children and two-thirds were female.”

The WHO is assisting local and federal health officials with the investigation of the outbreak. Investigators from the WHO collected food samples and victims’ stool samples for testing at the Central Public Health Laboratory in Erbil.

People at the refugee camp began having symptoms of foodborne illness after a June 12 iftar, an evening meal that Muslims use to break their dawn-to-dusk fasting during their holy month of Ramadan.

Outbreak victims have flooded area hospitals and clinics, leaving medical staff to treat patients any place they can find. Photo courtesy of WHO

Outbreak victims have flooded area hospitals and clinics, leaving medical staff to treat patients any place they can find. Photo courtesy of WHO

“The majority of the cases predominately presented with vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, consistent with foodborne illness,” according to the WHO. “All patients referred to health facilities have rapidly improved on supportive medical treatment.”

Although the WHO did not speculate about how food served at the refugee camp might have become contaminated, at least one Iraqi official told the Associated Press it was an intentional, aggressive act.

“An Iraqi lawmaker who visited the camp and Saudi state television accused a charity from Qatar — a small Gulf Arab country engulfed in a major diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia and several other Arab and Muslim nations — of providing the tainted food,” the AP reported. “The claims could not be independently confirmed and Qatari officials did not immediately answer calls for comment.”

The Iraqi health minister would not speculate on whether food could have been intentionally contaminated, according to the AP.

Raad al-Dahlaki, chair of the Iraqi parliament’s immigration and displacement committee, visited the camp and told the AP the suspect meal included rice, a bean sauce, meat, yogurt and water. Al-Dahlaki said the meals were distributed by a Qatari charity known as RAF, according to the AP.

Although the WHO report did not mention where the suspect food came from, and did not suggest the contamination was intentional, the international health organization did include a reminder from the local health officials.

“In light of this event, Erbil Directorate of Health further reiterates its earlier instruction to all camp managers to avoid any distribution of hot meals to IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons).”

The refugees in the Hassan Sham U2 camp meet the definition of IDPs. Most of them fled their homes in and around Mosul beginning in October 2016 after a U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive was launched against the Islamic State group from the city.

Organizations assisting the WHO with the outbreak are the International Medical Corps; ADRA; the International Organization for Migration; Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Barazani Charity Foundation. They are helping identify and manage outbreak victims’ cases.

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