July 17, 2008 / 5:07 PM / 11 years ago

World Health Organisation staff return to Iraq

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) has for the first time since 2003 redeployed expatriate staff to Iraq, the United Nations agency said on Thursday.

It said several international staff had quietly returned to Iraq in late June, reestablishing a “permanent international basis” in the country after 5 years.

U.N. agencies withdrew international staff after the deadly bombing of its Baghdad headquarters in August 2003, but Iraqi nationals continued their aid projects. The U.N. refugee agency recently sent back staff to Iraq.

WHO said it feared outbreaks of cholera and typhoid as summer approaches in Iraq.

Dr. Naeema Al-Gasseer, WHO country representative to Iraq, said a system was in place to check patients and water supplies for signs of cholera emerging after an outbreak which struck several thousand people and killed dozens last year.

“This is our immediate urgent priority and our focus again are internally displaced people because they are the ones at high risk,” she told a teleconference.

Cholera and typhoid are transmitted by contaminated food or water. WHO officials said cases of diarrheal diseases were on the rise, but laboratory testing had not confirmed any cholera.

The virulent disease is characterized in its most severe form by a sudden onset of acute diarrhea that can cause death by severe dehydration and kidney failure within hours.

Al-Gasseer, a Bahraini who had been based in Jordan for the past few years in charge of WHO’s Iraq program, said WHO experts were helping the Iraqi health ministry expand vaccination programs, monitor for diseases and improve standards of medical care.

“Needs are very huge,” she said, noting hepatitis and rotavirus vaccines will be introduced for Iraqi children over the next year, complementing programs for polio and measles.

“We can deliver more, while not losing sight that security is still a concern. We have a challenge to continue to come up with innovative approaches to be able to move around inside Iraq,” Al-Gasseer said.

“I managed during this past month to visit a women’s prison, hospitals and public health services outside the Green Zone. I have seen a difference in the streets and in the movement of people,” she said.

The Green Zone is the fortified compound in Baghdad housing the Iraqi parliament, government offices and foreign embassies.

In an unannounced visit to Baghdad Teaching Hospital, Al-Gasseer said she found a “90 percent” improvement in staffing, cleanliness and availability of medicines.

Editing by Janet Lawrence

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