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Cholera spreading in Basra, health group warns

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BASRA, Iraq (CNN) -- The World Health Organization has confirmed four cases of cholera in this southern Iraqi city, and the group says dozens more may have the potentially fatal illness.

The lack of clean water and security combined with economic troubles are allowing cholera to spread rapidly, WHO spokesman Ian Simpson said Thursday.

"Cholera has a fatality rate of more than 50 percent if it is not treated," he said. "This is probably the most serious health concern in Iraq right now."

About 50 samples have been sent to a laboratory in Kuwait for testing.

Cholera is an acute diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine. In severe cases, it can lead to dehydration and shock, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The illness can easily be prevented and treated -- but the World Health Organization said Thursday that conditions in Basra make it difficult to do either.

Basra still does not have clean water, so many people cannot follow basic hygiene procedures such as thoroughly cleaning their hands before cooking or after using the bathroom. The illness could also be transmitted through the water itself if it is contaminated, Simpson said.

The lack of security makes it difficult for some doctors and nurses to come to work, and some vital materials are missing or have been stolen.

Also, there is not enough money to keep facilities running and pay staff, the WHO said.

Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, said Thursday the bulk of the coalition's rebuilding effort will focus on the south because the region is "a victim of three wars, a rebellion, and absolutely torturous treatment by Saddam Hussein over 30 years. ... Everything in the south is broken."

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