A cholera outbreak in Iraq has spread to Syria, Kuwait and Bahrain, and could turn into a region-wide epidemic as millions of pilgrims prepare to visit the country, according to UNICEF's Iraq director.
"[The outbreak] already has a regional dynamic and the risk of that can only be increased by people from all over the region coming into Iraq," UNICEF country director Peter Hawkins said, as quoted by Reuters. "Kuwait, Bahrain and Syria have already had confirmed cases."
The disease was detected west of Baghdad in September and has since killed six people and infected at least 2,200 in Iraq. One in five confirmed cases is among children.
Health officials, including Hawkins, are concerned that the disease – which can lead to death by dehydration and kidney failure within hours if left untreated – will soon become a regional epidemic.
As millions of Shiite Muslims prepare to visit Iraq in December for Arbaeen – a ritual marking the end of an annual mourning period for the Prophet Mohammad's grandson Hussein – UNICEF is working with clerics in the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Kerbala to distribute information on how to guard against cholera.
The Iraq outbreak has been traced to a number of causes, among them low water levels in the Euphrates and winter flooding that has contaminated the river and shallow wells with sewage water.
The battle against Islamic State (formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants has also contributed to the outbreak, as many of the 3 million people displaced by the conflict are now living in camps where conditions are high conducive to the spread of cholera.
In an effort to fight the militants, a larger budget is being allocated toward security, at the cost of other services and infrastructure such as water supply, according to Hawkins.
Responding to the situation, UNICEF is providing bottled water and oral rehydration salts, as well as installing community water tanks. However, the organization is unable to provide those necessities for the entire area, as it is severely underfunded.