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In Iraq, taking steps to stamp out cholera

By Chris Niles

With an outbreak of cholera threatening to spread further, UNICEF has launched a campaign to inform vulnerable communities on basic measures for prevention and treatment.

DOHUK, Iraq, 9 November 2015 – In Domiz refugee camp in Dohuk, northern Iraq, Elhani is gathering a group of very excited schoolchildren and having them stand in a circle.

It’s Global Handwashing Day, and normal classes at Kobani primary school have been suspended for a while as children learn an equally important lesson: how to prevent cholera.

© UNICEF/IRQA2015-00303/Niles
Elhani, a Syrian refugee living in Domiz camp in northern Iraq, demonstrates proper handwashing to a group of girls in the camp school.

Elhani, a refugee from Hasakah in Syria who used to work as a physiotherapist, shows the girls how to wash their hands, miming the actions and watching closely as the children repeat him.

A cholera epidemic was declared in areas south of Baghdad in mid-September, and it has spread across the country, bringing fear with it – especially for those living in crowded camp conditions.

“When they heard about cholera, families in the camp were very scared,” Elhani says.

Elhani selects 10-year-old Rogina to help show the girls the best way to wash one’s hands, and how to blow one’s nose without spreading germs.

“The most important thing to do is to keep our hands and teeth clean,” she says.

Once the girls in Rogina’s group have learned the correct method of washing, Rogina takes her message to a classroom full of boys.

Rogina, who is from Darek in Syria and is first in her class in school, is confident as she stands in font of the boisterous group. And she knows what her message is meant to convey.

“The students have to tell their families when they get home,” she says. “We have to have clean hands and clean clothes and clean food. I was very happy to learn how to wash properly, I’m happy to learn everything.”

Making a difference

Prior to this morning, facilitators went door-to-door in the camp advising families on how to prevent and treat the disease, which is spread through contaminated food and water.

© UNICEF/IRQA2015-00301/Niles
Rogina, 10, is chosen to demonstrate to the boys' classroom the correct way to wash hands to prevent the spread of cholera and other illnesses.

As part of its overall response plan for water, sanitation and hygiene, UNICEF Iraq’s national handwashing campaign is running from the beginning of October until the end of November.  The objective is to provide information about how to prevent cholera to nearly 300,000 people over age 18 and more than 125,000 school-aged children.

Cholera is endemic in Iraq, and outbreaks occur every two to three years. The last was in 2012.  Cholera ‘season’ typically lasts from September through December, but the massive displacement within the country – more than 3 million Iraqis have been uprooted, and the country hosts nearly 250,000 Syrian refugees – has placed unprecedented strain on the country’s water infrastructure, which could lead to this outbreak lasting longer.

This morning after the children practice handwashing, they are given pamphlets that explain how to prevent and treat cholera, along with soap and handkerchiefs and other hygiene items to take home. 

Elhani is confident that his small contribution can make a difference.

“We’ve told them how it can be prevented, and now they’re not quite so worried, because now they know what to do,” he says. “I know they feel better, and I’m very satisfied that I’ve been able to alleviate their fears.”



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