22 October RFE

Iran confronted with disease outbreak


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Iran and its neighbors are facing an outbreak of Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF), a highly contagious and deadly disease that results in extensive bleeding. Refugee flows caused by the conflict in Afghanistan could increase the risk, and there does not seem to be a connection between this outbreak and the biological-warfare capabilities of the Taliban.

Ali-Safar Makanali, head of the border-region quarantine department in Iran's Veterinary Organization, reported on 14 October the recent registration of over 100 cases of people infected with Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, and he said that some of the victims have died already. Cases have been found in Isfahan, Sistan va Baluchistan, Luristan, and West Azerbaijan Provinces. Makanali said that the disease was transferred via smuggled cattle -- sheep, cows and camels -- from Afghanistan and Iraq despite strict border quarantines and extensive health-care measures.

AThis most recent outbreak may have as much to do with refugees as it does with cattle. Humans can be exposed to CCHF when they live in close proximity to the animals, and the virus is spread through urine, stools, blood, or saliva. An outbreak of CCHF has swept the regions of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, too. Dr. Taj Mohammed of Quetta's Fatima Jinnah Chest Hospital said that, "We've had 60 cases since June," Reuters reported on 4 October. He added that eight people have died so far and "there's a real risk of an epidemic among Afghan refugees."

AIran's Makanali said that the government has established some 40 quarantine units on the borders and another 100 movable quarantine units to block the disease's spread. The effectiveness of such measures is questionable, because Afghans who try to enter Iran nowadays are doing so clandestinely. After 11 September, Iran expected to face an influx of 400,000 refugees. Iran therefore used the armed forces to seal the eastern borders, and it established refugee camps inside western Afghanistan. The refugees now pay smugglers over $100 a head to sneak them across the border, and because they are in Iran illegally they are ineligible for government services. Moreover, they must actively avoid the Iranian government to avoid repatriation. More than 60 Afghans a day enter Sistan va Baluchistan Province illegally every day, IRNA reported on 17 October.

AWhen the outbreak of CCHF in south-west Asia is combined with recent cases of anthrax in the U.S., fears about the Taliban's biological warfare capabilities are magnified. U.S. Defense Department officials said at a 12 October briefing that it is possible that the Taliban are involved with toxins and maybe anthrax -- "that's a baseline that is probable." Delivery of such weapons could be "innovative" but not necessarily "sophisticated."

AMohammad Mehdi Guya, who heads the Iranian Health Ministry's infectious diseases department, said that the anthrax cases in the U.S. are the respiratory-type, while skin-type anthrax is common in Afghanistan. The skin-type anthrax is fatal only 5-20 percent of the time. Therefore, he said, "Our people should not worry that the influx of Afghan people into the country would spread the disease."

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