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Iraq: UN Experts Detail Threat Of Rift Valley Fever

  • Charles Recknagel

The United Nations' agricultural agency is warning Iraq that its population and livestock are at risk of infection from Rift Valley fever, a highly contagious virus which causes abortion and death among animals and sometimes kills people. The Baghdad government says Iraq is free of the disease, but it has invited UN veterinary experts to help test for any infection in the country. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with UN experts to learn more about the danger of the disease and what can be done to limit it.

Prague, 25 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Rift Valley fever is a disease that is usually associated with the African continent and, more specifically, the Rift Valley of Kenya, where it was first identified some 70 years ago.

The disease is caused by a mosquito-borne virus that can spread easily among animals and can also be transmitted to humans, through either insect bites or direct contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of infected animals. People and animals infected with the virus do not always develop the full-blown disease, but when they do, the results can be fatal. The virus causes abortion and death in sheep, goats, cattle, buffaloes, and camels. In humans, it can cause flu-like symptoms which sometimes lead to death or blindness.

Now Rift Valley fever appears to be moving beyond Africa, into the Arabian peninsula and beyond. The disease is reported to have killed at least 120 people in Saudi Arabia during an outbreak from September to May. More than 100 people were also reported to have died in Yemen.

Roger Paskin is an animal health officer with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, which has its headquarters in Rome. He tells RFE/RL that it is unclear exactly when and how the disease came to the Arabian peninsula:

"We are not sure of exactly when it began to spread into the Arabian peninsula. We have ideas that it could have been fairly recently, but we can't say for sure how recent. And we are not even sure of exactly what it was that got the disease there. Was it perhaps a population of mosquitoes that were blown across the Red Sea, or was it a group of infected animals that moved across into the Arabian peninsula and then infected the mosquitoes already living there?"

UN experts say that as Rift Valley fever spreads, it is putting Iraq -- in particular -- at risk of an epidemic. The reason is that Iraq, unlike most countries in the Mideast, has a vast system of irrigation canals for agriculture which provide hospitable breeding grounds for large numbers of mosquitoes that could become transmitters of the virus.

Peter Roeder, another FAO animal health officer based in Rome, describes the risk this way:

"Iraq is considered to be at risk because for the first time, last year, Rift Valley fever occurred outside the African continent, when there were serious epidemics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. And other countries in the region are at risk, not just Iraq. But Iraq offers special opportunities for the establishment of the virus because of the extent of irrigated farming systems, which offer opportunities for multiplication of mosquitoes which can maintain the disease."

The UN experts say that at present the risk is limited to animals at the western borders of Iraq with Saudi Arabia. The FAO estimates that animal population at slightly more than four million sheep and goats, in addition to some 200,000 cattle.

The government in Baghdad said on 23 July that Iraq currently faces no threat of infection from Risk Valley fever. The state-controlled weekly "Nabdh al-Shabab" quoted an official (not identified) of the Iraqi Agricultural Ministry as saying that "statements [that] Rift Valley fever is threatening Iraq are baseless, and Iraq is free from the disease."

Still, the FAO says that Baghdad has invited it to support a study of whether animals in Iraq's border region have become infected with the virus. The UN agency is to send a laboratory specialist and materials for blood sample collection and analysis to Iraq in the next few days to help four teams of Iraqi veterinarians to test animals in the border zone. The FAO says that the Iraqi veterinary services currently lack the necessary laboratory supplies to carry out effective monitoring and diagnosis by themselves.

FAO experts say that the study should require about six months to conduct. He said that during that time blood samples will be collected from some 14,000 animals to give a clear idea of whether Rift Valley fever has spread to Iraq or not.

If the virus is in Iraq, it would not inevitably lead to an epidemic of Rift Valley fever. UN officials says that an infection can be present in a country without the disease breaking out, as has often happened in African countries.

Paskin says that animals and people can tolerate low levels of infection from the Rift Valley fever virus without developing symptoms of the disease. That usually happens when the population of mosquitoes biting them is too small to pass on more than a modest amount of the virus. But that relatively safe situation can suddenly change into an epidemic of the full-blown disease if heavy rainfalls cause mosquitoes to breed in much larger numbers, causing greater quantities of the virus to be transmitted to their hosts.

Paskin also says countries can limit the spread of Rift Valley fever to keep it from reaching epidemic levels by two means. One is to use insect repellent to keep mosquitoes away from livestock and humans during periods of heavy rainfall, when mosquitoes are multiplying. Another, Paskin says, is to vaccinate people and animals against the disease.

"During the course of an outbreak, the only thing that one can really do is to try to stop mosquitoes which transmit the virus from getting at human beings and perhaps even from getting at more valuable breeding animals. To stop them from getting at human beings, it's the normal thing of using mosquito repellents. And there are surface-acting insecticides which one can spray onto animals to prevent them being bitten by mosquitoes. If one is aware that the disease is going to recur on a regular basis in an area, then perhaps that's a good case for using a vaccine which would actually create an immunity in the population and prevent the disease from spreading further."

As Iraq has come under risk of Rift Valley fever, Saudi Arabia said yesterday it would upgrade health measures on its border with Iraq to guard the kingdom against a new outbreak of the disease. Health Minister Osama Shobokshi said that Saudi Arabia has already banned the entry of animals from Iraq.

Shobokshi also ruled out what he called "any direct coordination with Iraq" to fight the disease. Riyadh and Baghdad have had hostile relations since the 1991 Gulf War, during which Saudi Arabia was part of an international coalition to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait.