Bird Flu Caused Iraqi Girl's Death, Official Says

Workers disinfect cars in Raniya, a village north of Baghdad. Iraq's first case of bird flu was confirmed, posing a new threat to national stability.
Workers disinfect cars in Raniya, a village north of Baghdad. Iraq's first case of bird flu was confirmed, posing a new threat to national stability. (By Yahya Ahmed -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

BAGHDAD, Jan. 30 -- Iraqi Health Minister Abdul Mutalib Ali Mohammed said Monday that a 15-year-old girl who died nearly two weeks ago in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah was infected with bird flu.

The World Health Organization had said Jan. 19 that the teenager did not have the disease. But it reported Sunday that additional analysis tested positive for the H5N1 strain of the virus, which is highly lethal and can be contracted from infected poultry. WHO said it would conduct further tests in Britain.

The girl, Shangen Abdul Qader, died after experiencing severe respiratory symptoms characteristic of the disease that has killed at least 85 people since 2003, mostly in Southeast Asia. The H5N1 strain has not been transmitted easily from person to person, but health researchers fear that the virus could alter and become highly contagious among humans, leading to a worldwide pandemic.

The Iraqi government has warned that the country's porous borders, which have also allowed an influx of foreign fighters to join Iraq's insurgency, could make it difficult to stop the spread of disease from neighboring countries. In Turkey, which borders Iraq to the north, the deaths of four children have been attributed to bird flu. The tenuous security climate in much of the country could also make dealing with the outbreak difficult, although the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, which borders Turkey, is considered perhaps the safest part of the country.

In a statement issued Monday, Iraq's Health Ministry appealed to the WHO and other international organizations to "move fast to supply our country with scientific expertise and the drugs and supplies needed to combat the disease."

Health officials raised the prospect of more bird flu diagnoses and are looking into two other suspected cases, Mohammed, the Iraqi health minister said.

Mohammed Khoshnaw, health minister for the Kurdish regional government, said doctors suspected at least two more people could be infected. A doctor at the Ranya hospital, in the town northwest of Sulaymaniyah where Qader contracted the disease, confirmed that two women there had symptoms similar to Qader's.

The WHO, which is sending a team to Iraq for further investigation, told the Reuters news agency it was also testing the infected girl's uncle, who died after experiencing similar symptoms .

The Kurdish government announced that it would begin culling poultry, but advised citizens not to do so themselves, saying this could cause the disease to spread. Some residents of Sulaymaniyah , one of the few Iraqi cities to prosper from an influx of foreign and Iraqi investment since the U.S. invasion, said they were concerned the news would damage the region's reputation.

"This is going to affect the city, starting from tourists, businessmen and so on," said Haiwa Fatih Barazanchi, a businessman. "Sulaymaniyah was an example of safety and attractiveness to investors, businessmen and tourists, but now the spread of this disease might hurt the economy."

Elsewhere in Iraq on Monday, a British soldier was shot and killed while on patrol in the southern province of Maysan, the military said. There were no other injuries in the attack. The death was the 99th among 8,000-member British contingent in Iraq, the second-largest foreign military in the country after that of the United States.

"My thoughts are with his family and friends," British Defense Secretary John Reid said in a statement.

Tension has mounted in recent months between the local population and British forces policing southern Iraq. The government of Basra, another southern province, has protested the detention of five local policemen by British troops last week, and hundreds of residents have joined the protest. Police units across southern Iraq are widely thought to be influenced by Shiite militias that have carried out kidnappings and extra-judicial killings.

Also Monday, Khalil Dulaimi, the lead attorney for deposed President Saddam Hussein, whose trial for crimes against humanity resumes Wednesday, told the Associated Press that Hussein and his defense team would boycott the proceedings to protest what Dulaimi called the bias of the new presiding judge.

Hussein and the defense team walked out of the trial's session Sunday, and another defendant was dragged from the courtroom.

Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, K.I. Ibrahim and Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.

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