At least 50 people have died after a fire tore through the Covid isolation ward at a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
The death toll is expected to rise, as search operations at al-Hussain coronavirus hospital continued after the fire was brought under control. Sixteen people were rescued from the burning building.
“The victims died of burns and the search is continuing,” said Haydar al-Zamili, a spokesperson for the local health authorities, noting that there were fears that many victims were still trapped inside the building.
Initial police reports suggested that an oxygen tank explosion inside the hospital’s Covid-19 ward was the likely cause of the fire, a policeman at the scene of the fire said.
“Raging fires have trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward and rescue teams are struggling to reach them,” a health worker told Reuters before entering the burning building.
Videos shared online showed thick clouds of smoke billowing from the Hussein hospital.
Earlier on Monday, a minor fire broke out at the health ministry’s headquarters in Baghdad, but it was quickly contained with no fatalities recorded.
The blaze at the hospital is the second such tragedy this year. In April, a fire at a Baghdad Covid-19 hospital killed 82 and injured 110, sparked by the explosion of badly stored oxygen cylinders.
Many of the victims were on respirators being treated for Covid-19 and were burned or suffocated in the resulting inferno. Dozens of relatives were visiting patients in the intensive care unit. The then health minister, Hassan al-Tamimi, resigned after the April fire.
Already decimated by war and sanctions, Iraq’s healthcare system has struggled to cope with the coronavirus crisis, which has killed 17,592 people and infected 1.44 million people.