Iraqis Fear New Enemy: H1N1 Virus

An Iraqi schoolgirl in the city of Kut i i

An Iraqi schoolgirl wears a protective mask as she is walked to school in the central Iraqi city of Kut, Oct. 19, 2009. Panic over swine flu prompted officials in Iraq to close about 2,000 schools in a bid to combat the virus. Ali al-Alak/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ali al-Alak/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi schoolgirl in the city of Kut

An Iraqi schoolgirl wears a protective mask as she is walked to school in the central Iraqi city of Kut, Oct. 19, 2009. Panic over swine flu prompted officials in Iraq to close about 2,000 schools in a bid to combat the virus.

Ali al-Alak/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq, a country wracked with war, has a new cause for concern: swine flu.

Fewer than 500 cases of H1N1 virus have been reported, but it's not uncommon to see schoolchildren walking home wearing surgical masks. Fear of the virus has caused a rash of school closures, and is even preventing some Iraqis from making this year's pilgrimage to Mecca.

Masks and rubber gloves are all the rage, and Iraq's political parties are competing to show which one has the better anti-influenza program.

Swine flu first turned up in the country among U.S. soldiers last summer. Since then, only five Iraqis have died from H1N1 virus, according to the health ministry, but the panic has spread much faster.

Ammr Sadiq, a cameraman in the southern city of Najaf, said that he doesn't believe Western medicine is very advanced. Instead, he has turned to a local holy man, who he says can keep the disease away by reciting blessings from the Quran.

But the government would prefer that Iraqis call a hotline it has set up for people who believe they are experiencing the first sign of symptoms. At the other end of the line, a health ministry employee answers questions and refers patients to a clinic if the case sounds like swine flu.

Authorities are suggesting that if two classrooms in the same school show signs of an outbreak the school should close for a week. But hundreds of schools have been shutting their doors anyway. There are rumors that in southern Iraq hysterical residents have run some suspected flu carriers out of town.

Iraq's government and several others in the region have slapped restrictions on who may travel next month for the hajj, the annual Muslim holy pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, which attracts about 3 million visitors from 160 countries. And doctors armed with thermometers have been greeting some flights at the airport, hoping to turn away anyone with a fever.

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