Bird Flu Fears Hit Iraq

By Duraid Salman

BAGHDAD, Iraq, December 9, 2005 (ENS) - Although Iraq has not recorded cases of bird flu, a health scare is already driving up the price of other kinds of meat.

The Iraqi government is attempting to prevent an outbreak of avian flu by banning poultry imports from at least 20 countries, including neighbors such as Kuwait and Turkey, which have reported cases over the last few months.

The Ministry of Agriculture reported that in October, a dead bird in Erbil in northern Iraq proved not to have the deadly H5N1 strain. Tests run by the World Health Organization found the carcass was infected with the H9 virus, which cannot be passed to humans.

But that has not eased the fears of many Iraqis, who are increasingly choosing not to eat poultry.

"We refuse to have chicken, even if it means we are forced to eat only bread and onion," said Samar Talib, a 37 year-old housewife in Baghdad who ordered her husband to stop buying poultry because of bird flu fears.


Chicken is grilled for U.S. Marines in Iraq. July 4, 2004. (Photo courtesy U.S. Marine Corps)
Those who still want to eat chicken are having to pay more for it since the import ban, said Hazim Sultan, 41, who owns a butcher’s shop in the Jamila meat market in eastern Baghdad. Sellers argue that their meat is safer than imports anyway, and have increased prices.

The government no longer controls market prices, and sellers at the Jamila market reported that the average price of chicken has risen from about 2,500 Iraqi dinars (a little under US$2) per kilogram to 4,000 dinars since the bird flu scare.

Traders also report rising demand – and prices - for lamb and vegetables.

"This disease is adding to the suffering of the Iraqi people," said Saad Younis, a 35 year-old construction worker. "Many people on low incomes have been greatly affected as meat prices are going up and people are afraid to eat chicken."

Sulaimaniyah in northeastern Iraq is ordering live poultry markets to close for fear of a bird flu outbreak, the newspaper "Kurdistani Nwe" reported last week.

The government's announcement that thousands of birds have been infected with other viruses has not helped build public confidence.

The agriculture ministry has reported that approximately 6,300 birds were infected with Exotic Newcastle Disease and another virus in the Nineveh, Baghdad and Babil provinces between August and November 2005. The strains of this disease, common in developing nations, are not necessarily fatal for poultry and cannot be passed on to humans, agriculture ministry and veterinary experts maintained.


Bird market in Baghdad (Photo courtesy OAG)
In addition, 691,000 chickens were infected with the coccidia parasite in Nineveh province, and another 641,500 had chronic respiratory disease in Karbala, the ministry reported.

Isam al-Rubaii, the 41 year old owner of a poultry farm in Baghdad, said his job was "no longer worth the effort" due to the falling demand for poultry.

Minister of Agriculture Ali Hussein al-Bahadli said no poultry or eggs had been infected with bird flu, but encouraged Iraqis to buy only domestically produced meat. Bahadli promised to slaughter any birds and compensate owners if they tested positive for the deadly virus.

The government has set up a committee of veterinary and health experts to watch for avian flu outbreaks.

Muhammad Sharif, director of the agriculture ministry's veterinary department, cautioned that the disease is difficult to stop because it is transnational.

"It holds no passport and will arrive whenever it likes," he said.

Bahadli also admitted that the government cannot be certain that bird flu will be kept out, since controls on its long national borders are still loose.

"Large-sized troublemakers [i.e. insurgents] cross the border, and the state can't completely control that," commented Rubaii. "How will it stop small birds from scurrying over?"

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}