Deadly parasite invades Iraq

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The Independent Online
AN OUTBREAK of a devastating livestock pest, Old World Screw-worm, has reached epidemic proportions in Iraq, where it is infesting humans and threatening the entire Middle East region, according to the UN.

Briefing papers compiled by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN describe the Iraqi situation where the infestation, which causes foul-smelling discharges after attacking wounds, scars and cuts, has already led to 40 deaths.

Last night, Middle East observers said they feared that the worm could be the latest weapon in an attempt at biological warfare because the screw- worm is not native to Iraq. George Pumphrey, a biological warfare specialist based in Germany, said: "Iraq is the latest victim in what appears to be a deliberate introduction of the screw-worm as a biological weapon. In Libya, where an outbreak occurred in 1989, 2,000 animals were killed. It was exemplarily combatted, yet by the following year it covered 35,000 square kilometres and killed 12,000 head of stock."

The worm is indigenous to the US, Mexico and Central America. The infestation is caused by the larvae of the fly Cochliomyia hominivorax. The larvae burrow into wounds and orifices of warm-blooded animals, including human beings, and invade cuts, castration wounds, newborns' navels and tick bites.

A female fly lays an average of four batches of 400 eggs on the edge of a wound; in just 12 hours the larvae hatch and enter the body for feeding. They can consume a whole cow in five to seven days. In Iraq, where lack of imported feed caused by the embargo has already led to a drop in livestock, the further demise of cattle could spell disaster.

The rapid spread of the worm has affected 12 of the 18 Iraqi provinces since December. Agronomist Henning Steinfeld of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation wrote: "This literally constitutes an explosion. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria are seriously threatened. To a lesser extent are Bahrain, Lebanon, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon."

Eradicating the screw-worm involves breeding flies and sterilising the males with radioactive cobalt. This has led to the worm's near extermination in the US. In Costa Rica alone, the eradication programme is estimated to have cost $35m (pounds 21m). But in Iraq, just $400,000 has so far been allocated by the FAO, together with $600,000 from the Netherlands.