Health officials in northern Iraq are treating nearly 4,000 suspected cases of cholera and eight people have died so far, the health minister for Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region said on Wednesday.
"A health catastrophe could emerge in Kurdistan if help is not urgently offered by other states and the World Health Organization (WHO)," minister Zairyan Othman told Reuters.
Othman said Kurdistan had declared a state of emergency to prevent the spread of the acute intestinal infection, which is caught through contaminated water or food.
"The epidemic could move to other northern provinces and even to Baghdad," he warned.
In Geneva, the WHO said it was aware of two outbreaks -- one in the Kurdish province of Sulaimaniya and the other in Kirkuk, a province abutting Kurdistan with a large Kurdish population.
"The response of the main hospital (in Sulaimaniya) has been very well organized and taken very seriously by the minister of health and by various partners, including WHO," said Claire-Lise Chaignat, head of WHO's global task force on cholera control.
Health officials said the source of infection in Sulaimaniya appeared to be polluted well water that residents were forced to rely on because of a shortage of drinking water. In Kirkuk, cracked water pipes had allowed contamination by sewage.
Visiting a hospital in Kirkuk, Othman said there were 2,000 suspected cholera cases in Sulaimaniya and 1,924 in Kirkuk.
Health officials in Sulaimaniya have shut down juice bars and ordered restaurants to stop serving vegetables that may have been washed in polluted water, Sherku Abdullah, the general director of the health office in Sulaimaniya, told Reuters.
Abdullah, who heads an emergency team set up to tackle the disease, said there were 35 confirmed cases in Sulaimaniya and six people had died. Othman put the death toll in the province at seven, with an eighth victim in Kirkuk.
He said there were 47 confirmed cases in Kirkuk.
Abdullah said Iraq's Health Ministry had sent 50 tons of medical supplies to the Kurdish region to fight the epidemic.
Dr. Sabah Hawrami, head of the educational hospital of Sulaimaniya, said most of the cholera patients had probably used well water for drinking because of a shortage of treated drinking water, a common problem in Iraq during summer.
Well water levels dropped in the summer months and could have mixed with sewage water.
A health alert issued by Kurdistan's Health Ministry has panicked people in Sulaimaniya. Many have stopped eating in restaurants for fear of becoming infected.
"Right after rumors spread about cholera, 80 percent of our customers stopped coming. If the situation continues we will go bankrupt," said Sulaimaniya restaurateur Ahmed Nouridden, 54.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Laura MacInnis in Geneva)