Swine flu cases climb among US soldiers in Iraq
BAGHDAD -- The number of American troops in Iraq diagnosed with swine flu has climbed to 67, making U.S. soldiers the largest group in the country to come down with the potentially deadly virus, Iraqi health officials said Wednesday.
The figures were released by the Iraqi health ministry as it detailed steps being taken to control the spread of the virus, which last week claimed its first fatality in the southern holy city of Najaf. A 21-year-old Iraqi woman, who had visited the city's Shiite shrines, later died of swine flu.
The health ministry has also confirmed that 23 Iraqis and six other foreigners have been diagnosed with the virus. Their nationalities were not disclosed.
All the U.S. troops had either been treated or were undergoing treatment, said Dr. Amer al-Khuzai, the deputy health minister. There have been no fatalities among American forces, he said.
The U.S. military did not immediately confirm the figures released by the Iraqis. But earlier this week, it said 51 soldiers had been diagnosed, while another 71 suspected cases were in isolation.
"We think they have this many cases because they come through different countries to come here. They come from the United States. They come from Europe," al-Khuzai said.
He said the U.S. military has been giving the ministry weekly updates about the number of swine flu cases diagnosed on American bases in Iraq.
Col. Michael D. Eisenhauer, chief of clinical operations in Iraq, told The Associated Press in an e-mail earlier this week that the U.S. military had been completely open with the Iraqis on the cases of diagnosed Americans.
The cases in American troops have been diagnosed over the last three months since the military actively began screening for the virus, he said. "There has not been a sudden outbreak," Eisenhauer added.
Swine flu cases have been diagnosed at six U.S. bases in Iraq, the military said. In May, 18 soldiers on their way to Iraq were diagnosed in Kuwait with the virus. Troops are now screened for the virus before they leave the United States and again when the arrive in Iraq.
Cases among Iraqis have been diagnosed in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Ten were caught at Baghdad's International Airport, where health officials screen arriving passengers, said Dr. Sabah Karkukly, who oversees the ministry's swine flu program.
The figures raise concern about Iraq's ability to control the virus' spread among millions of Shiites who visit the revered shrines in Najaf and another holy Shiite city, Karbala.
Two cases of swine flu were diagnosed in Najaf, while three others were diagnosed in Karbala, said al-Khuzai, the deputy health minister. He cautioned Iraqis to take extra steps to protect themselves, such as avoiding crowded places where the virus can easily be transmitted.
Iraq's Cabinet on Wednesday banned trips to Saudia Arabia's holy city of Mecca during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins later this month.
Iraq also joined other Arab health ministers in banning children, the elderly and the chronically ill from the annual hajj pilgrimage in late November.
The World Health Organization, as of July 31, had tallied more than 162,000 swine flu cases worldwide. It counted at least 1,154 deaths, with more than 1,000 reported in the Americas, according to its Web site.
Iraq's Cabinet also approved the purchase of $100 million worth of the anti-viral medicine Tamiflu, which is enough for a quarter of Iraq's population, Karkukly said.
By CHELSEA J. CARTER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 12, 2009; 8:36 AM
Associated Press Writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.