(CNN) -- More than 2,000 Iraqis in the northern part of the country have contracted cholera, U.N. officials say, citing local authorities.
Iraqi children stand amid litter and polluted water at the edge of a vegetable market in Basra, Iraq.
The outbreak of the potentially deadly disease is thought to be the result of poor water quality, the U.N. officials said.
"Local authorities report that over 2,000 people have been affected so far by the outbreak, with five deaths reported and 500 patients admitted to hospital with severe diarrhea within the last two days alone," the U.N. Children's Fund, or UNICEF, said on Wednesday.
Forty-seven cases have been confirmed as epidemic cholera, but the number is expected to grow, said UNICEF, which has rushed emergency aid to the affected area.
The outbreak has hit the Sulaimaniya province and the nearby Kirkuk region in northern Iraq.
"Although the outbreak is largely affecting adults, children are at extremely high risk," UNICEF said.
Cholera is a bacterial ailment that affects the intestinal tract. The disease is contracted by consuming contaminated water.
The outbreak is being attributed to "serious problems with water quality and sewage treatment" -- an assessment repeated by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq.
Only 30 percent of the population in Sulaimaniya has an adequate water supply, according to local reports, and "many people have been reduced to digging shallow wells outside their own homes," UNICEF said.
UNICEF is urging families to make sure children stay away from areas contaminated with raw sewage, wash their hands with soap and drink only water that has been purified or boiled.
UNICEF is providing material such as oral rehydration salts and safe water kits.
"If the epidemic spreads, there will be an urgent need for additional support," UNICEF said. E-mail to a friend
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