Iraqi Shiite pilgrims returning from Syria test positive for corona virus

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Shi'ite fighters ride in a military vehicle during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

Some Shiite pilgrims returning to Iraq from Syria have tested positive for COVID-19, raising concern that such pilgrim travel could be a source of a larger spread of the disease around the country, a senior Iraqi official and health officials said Sunday.

So far, Iraq has recorded 547 coronavirus cases and 42 deaths, most of them in the past week.

Health authorities said there were at least 11 cases of coronavirus in the Shiite holy city of Kerbala among pilgrims who returned last week from Syria after visiting a Shiite shrine there, according to the governor of Kerbala.

“Everyone who recently returned back from Syria has been quarantined to make sure he’s not infected with coronavirus,” the governor, Nusayif al-Khitabi, said in a video posted on Facebook.

Al-Khitabi said the central government should have included Syria among countries where Iraq banned entry to travelers.

Health officials said there had been four other cases of coronavirus in the Shiite city of Najaf among pilgrims who visited Damascus last week.

Syria has reported nine cases of the illness, with one death. However, doctors say there are more cases. The government denies it is covering up the extent of the disease.

Thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iran, a hotspot for coronavirus, and other countries also continue to arrive in Syria to visit the Sayeda Zainab shrine in Damascus.

The poor state of the health care systems in both war-ravaged Iraq and Syria means that they would be overwhelmed by a large-scale spread of the epidemic.

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