by Zhang Miao, Jamal Hashim
BAGHDAD, March 13 (Xinhua) -- A Chinese team of seven health experts is providing guidance and medical assistance to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in Iraq.
The experts are helping Iraqi health authorities prioritize response strategies, fill testing gaps and bring China's experience to benefit the worn-torn country.
PRIORITIZE RESPONSE STRATEGIES
Iraq's first detected case is an Iranian student who tested positive on Feb. 24. Most confirmed cases in Iraq have a travel history in neighboring Iran, an epicenter of the outbreak of the coronavirus in the Middle East.
Iraqi Health Ministry on Thursday confirmed that there are a total of 83 COVID-19 cases across the country, of whom eight have died and 24 recovered.
Baghdad, the worst affected area in the country, has reported 32 confirmed cases. Iraqi authorities have tightened precautionary measures, including closure of schools, restaurants and malls and suspension of Friday prayers for Muslims.
However, concerns mount because Iraq's fragile health system has been racked by decades of conflicts and sanctions. The country now faces severe shortages of medical supplies, such as masks and personal protective equipment.
Furthermore, health authorities have struggled to update daily confirmed numbers and assess the overall situation because of a lack of a nation-wide infectious disease prevention and control plan and a digital surveillance system.
Sent by the Red Cross Society of China, seven Chinese health experts, including epidemiologist, nucleic-acid testing expert, critical-care specialist and other medical experts, arrived at Baghdad International Airport on Saturday night.
Based on preliminary assessment by the team, Han Mengjie, expert from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that Iraq is still in the early stages of the epidemic of COVID-19.
However, he warned that further spread is possible because cross-border travelers are still being smuggled into Iraq from the sprawling border with Iran.
Han said that Iraq needs to implement a national strategy to fight against COVID-19, and community-based prevention measures should be given priority.
In addition, religious and tribal leaders should encourage the public to focus on practicing hand sanitation, avoiding mass gathering and wearing masks, he added.
FILL TESTING GAPS
According to a COVID-19 situation report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), local transmission has been recorded in Iraq.
However, the Central Public Health Laboratory in Baghdad is the only place that has equipment to conduct PCR testing in Iraq, with an inadequate number of diagnostic kits donated by WHO. So far, the lab has tested some 700 suspected cases with symptoms, of which approximately 10 percent tested positive.
"We don't know the situation on the ground," said Assad Mahdi, deputy director general of Iraqi Health Ministry's Public Health Department. He told Xinhua that Iraq needs to widen surveillance and expand testing.
Early testing paves way for early detection and treatment, said Tao Zhongquan, leader of the Chinese medical team, highlighting that China donated lab equipment, PCR machines and 50,000 fast diagnostic kits to Iraq.
Adham Abdel-Moneim, WHO representative in Iraq, said that with China's donation, the country can implement a broader testing strategy to test more samples.
BENEFIT FROM CHINESE EXPERIENCE
As WHO declared that COVID-19 is characterized as pandemic, international community should demonstrate solidarity to contain the spread of the virus.
The Chinese team not only brings medical equipment to Iraq but also its experience in clinical guidelines, case management as well as infection prevention and control that are required at this stage in Iraq.
By visiting local hospitals and carrying out technical briefing with Iraqi health officials and experts, the Chinese medical team shares their expertise in combating the virus.
Rana Hajjeh, deputy director for WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, led a six-member team working in Iraq to assess the preparedness and response in the country.
"I think the experience from China is extremely helpful to us including its large database and the experience in managing to decrease the number of the infected cases," Hajjeh said.
"I do believe the experience of China in terms of clinical management is a wealth for this country to benefit from," Abdel-Moneim noted.