Scabies outbreak as prisoners denied hygiene, treatment; 'Our cell was where we... defecate, urinate, eat, drink, sleep... Water is rarely available'
Above: Microscopic image of the scabies mite. Left: A rash caused by scabies.
Bad hygiene in several Iraqi prisons has caused prisoners to become infected with scabies, and no treatment is being given, according to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dealing with prisoners.
“At least four Iraqi prisons have been infected with scabies as a result of bad hygiene,” said Khalid Rabia’a, a spokesman for the local NGO Prisoners’ Association for Justice (PAJ). “The problem has been identified in Ministry of Interior prisons but we don’t yet know if it also exists in prisons run by the US army.”
Scabies is a contagious infection caused by a mite which in turn causes intense itching and inflammation. Most commonly affected by scabies are the hands and feet, the inner part of the wrists, and the folds under the arms. It may also affect other parts of the body, particularly the elbows and areas around the breasts, genitals, navel and buttocks.
Scabies is usually transmitted by skin-to-skin contact and spreads more easily in crowded conditions. Infections are treated by the application of medicated cream or lotion to the skin all over the body to kill the mites.
PAJ, established to assist former detainees, said it had tried sending medicated cream to the prisons but prison officers had refused to accept it, arguing that there had been no infestation of scabies among prisoners.
“Five prisoners released during Ramadan have been clinically confirmed with skin diseases, including scabies. They have told us the problem is serious,” Rabia’a added.
The Ministry of Interior said there was no evidence of a scabies infection among prisoners, who are given constant medical care, it said.
“Our prisons are constantly evaluated and no scabies can be found among prisoners; doctors are available any time,” said Lt-Col Ali Jabbar, a senior official at the Ministry of Interior.
However, another senior official, who prefers anonymity for security reasons, told IRIN prisoners were infected by scabies and that appropriate medical care was not available.
“I’m speaking anonymously because we have been threatened and told not to speak about the problem. Apart from scabies, many prisoners are suffering from malnutrition and skin diseases,” the official said.
“Some police officers have also become victims of scabies but they are treated free of charge,” the senior official added. “You can hear prisoners demanding medicines… Bad management of prisons isn’t something new in Iraq but sometimes I think it is worse now than it was during Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
Local NGO urges action
With the help of PAJ, IRIN spoke to one of the released prisoners about hygiene inside Iraqi prisons.
“Our cell was where we had to defecate, urinate, eat, drink, sleep and wash our clothes. Water is rarely available and the smell is awful,” Muhammad Aydan, 35, a former prisoner who was released during Ramadan, said. “I was in prison for nine months and never saw a doctor or a nurse coming to examine or treat us. Instead, I saw one of the prisoners die because of fever.”
“Everyone had scabies. I itched all over my body,” Aydan added.
PAJ has appealed to the Iraq government for an explanation and permission to enter Iraqi prisons to offer medical assistance, but two weeks after making the plea, it has yet to receive an answer.
“We call upon international rights activists to intervene because we, as a local NGO, are treated with less respect. If they could get permission to enter [the prisons], they would be able to see the problem with their own eyes and this might force them [the prison authorities] to treat the prisoners,” Rabia’a said.
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