AMMAN/BAGHDAD/DAMASCUS/DUBAI, 9 October 2007 (IRIN) - As cholera awareness posters have been going up in Baghdad, countries bordering Iraq have also taken measures to prevent an outbreak of the disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been advising countries in the region to boost their defences against cholera, after reports that cholera had crossed the Iraqi border into Iran where at least 45 people had been infected.
The Jordanian Ministry of Health has begun implementing a contingency plan, Ali Assad, head of the National Committee for Epidemics at the ministry, told IRIN. However, the possibility of closing the borders has been ruled out by officials.
"We have the anti-cholera treatments to deal with the disease in case it appears. But for now there is no need to close the borders if we follow scientific methods in handling the disease," said Bassam Hijawi, head of the Ministry of Health's Disease Control Department.
The Jordanian and Iraqi governments have agreed that air passengers from Iraq be screened and provided with the necessary preventative medication either before they embark on flights to Jordan or when they land in Amman. Passengers are also given certificates by the Iraqi side indicating that they are cholera-free.
"No treatment will be given to those holding certificates indicating they have taken preventative medication. The certificates of treatment must be stamped by the government of Iraq and approved by the WHO in order to avoid having people showing fake certificates," said Hijawi. He said Jordan had agreed with Iraq that any passengers suffering from stomach problems would not be allowed to fly to Jordan.
The Health Ministry also plans to scrutinise the treatment being given to Iraqis living in Jordan, mainly in densely populated areas. "We want to make sure proper measures are taken when dealing with possible cholera patients," said Assad.
At least 700,000 Iraqis live in Jordan, the majority of whom arrived after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Many children living in displacement camps are suffering from acute diarrhoea. This child, who lives in a camp near the Syrian border, is suspected to have cholera
All passengers coming from Iraq are asked to disclose necessary information about their work and place of residence in Iraq as well as in Jordan. The measures also ban the importation of foodstuffs other than canned food into Jordan.
Officials at the Department for Epidemics said dozens of laboratory technicians had been sent to different parts of the kingdom to conduct tests and make sure the country remained cholera free.
Iraq has been grappling with an outbreak of cholera - 3,300 cases and 14 deaths since August - blamed on poor quality water supplies and a lack of sanitation.
"People must be careful about what they eat and when they go to toilets," said the Health Ministry’s Hijawi, who believes that all the measures taken will not guarantee the disease will not enter Jordan, which has been free of the disease since 1981.
"It is impossible to prevent cholera or any other disease from entering the kingdom. We are doing our best and hopefully very few or no cases appear," he said.
Syria, however, has yet to implement direct measures to counter cholera. The authorities have not initiated any screening for incoming Iraqis for cholera-related symptoms. However, with medical supplies readily at hand and with Syria having now all but closed its borders to Iraqi refugees, it is hoped that the disease can be contained within Iraq.
Syrian witnesses on the border, as well as a doctor at Al-Tanf Palestinian refugee camp on the Syrian side of the Iraq border, report no known cases of the disease.
"There are no cases of cholera in the camp. I have not heard of any symptoms in al-Tanf or al-Walid camp," said Ahmad Hassan, adding that he was able to send urine and blood samples to Syrian hospitals and would monitor the situation.
Although refugee camps are feared to be at risk because of poor sanitation, Syrian camps now have access to medical supplies, as well as clean food and water.
Refugees in Syria have been warned of the outbreak by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).