LIANE HANSEN, host:
In Baghdad these days, many Iraqis with cell phones have been receiving messages from the Ministry of Health. They warn residents not to drink untreated tap water, it is unsafe. And officials fear an outbreak of typhoid or other waterborne diseases during the baking-hot summer months. Those most at risk are people who live in Baghdad slums where few have cell phones or television to receive the health warnings. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF: Doctors in the children's ward of Fatima al-Zahra Hospital see dozens of patients each day with symptoms of waterborne diseases.
Unidentified Woman: (Arabic spoken)
FLINTOFF: One mother tells Dr. Abbas al-Nuaimi that her three-and-a-half-month-old baby girl has been throwing up and suffering from diarrhea. A doctor gave the baby injections, she says, but the diarrhea has gotten worse. Dr. Nuaimi says he sees many such cases in infants and toddlers, and the source is almost always contaminated drinking water.
Dr. ABBAS AL-NUAIMI (Fatima al-Zahra Hospital, Baghdad): There is a heavy pollution in the water, make a problem for us. So we face many problem that suffering from typhoid and diarrheal disease and hepatitis.
FLINTOFF: Waterborne diseases are common in poor countries that have no sewage or clean water systems, but Baghdad once had such things. Dr. Fathil al-Hadawi of the Ministry of Health says the pipes have been wrecked by years of neglect and war. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: DR. FADHIL AL-MEHDAWI.]
Dr. FADHIL AL-MEHDAWI (Director of Community Medicine, Ministry of Health, Baghdad): They are all - they are broken, some cracks happen. This would lead to contamination from the surrounding area of sewage system or under-soil water.
FLINTOFF: Hadawi says that in addition to the broken pipes, chronic electricity outages in the city mean that water treatment and pumping stations often stand idle, so even polluted tap water isn't always available. In Sadr City, one of Baghdad's poorer neighborhoods, school supervisor Jabar Ali says people sometimes go for three or four days without any tap water at all.
MR. JABAR ALI (School Supervisor, Sadr City, Baghdad): (Arabic spoken)
FLINTOFF: So whenever water comes through the pipes, he says, people will rush to drink it or store it up. Ali says the government's clean water education campaign is too little, too late. He adds that the government should keep in mind that most people in his area are uneducated, without cell phones or even electricity to power radios and TV sets.
In a small market street in Sadr City, people line up at a stand where the ice seller, Abu Hassan Hadi, is attracting customers by offering free glasses of water. Everyone drinks from the same glasses, but Abu Hassan insists that the water is clean. He says the same goes for the chunks of ice he's sawing.
Mr. ABU HASSAN HADI: (Ice Seller): (Arab speaking)
FLINTOFF: He says he buys his ice from factories that take it directly from the Tigris River, not from the city water system, and treat it with chemicals themselves. Health Ministry officials warn people specifically that ice is just as likely to be contaminated as water is. Dr. Abbas al-Nuaimi at the hospital says he knows of no major steps that the government is taking to rebuild the water in sewage systems.
Dr. NUAIMI: All these are deficient. They promised the people that they will make this in the future. On what future, I don't know.
FLINTOFF: Dr. Fathil al-Hadawi at the Health Ministry says that most people in Sadr City have already contracted Hepatitis B from tainted water and that officials are bracing for more dysentery and typhoid cases this summer. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Hepatitis B virus is not spread by contaminated food or water. We should have said "Hepatitis A."]