Two hospitals in have reported 17 confirmed cases of cholera in the Iraqi city of Basra, and the World Health Organization (search) said Wednesday it fears far more have gone unreported.

A WHO team dispatched to the southern city this week said the number of confirmed cases of cholera (search) does not reflect the extent of the disease.

"An outbreak of cholera, affecting probably several hundreds of people, is occurring," said WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib.

The first confirmed cases in Basra (search) turned up in children age 4 and under. Tests were done by the Al-Tahir Teaching Hospital and Basra Maternal and Child Hospital.

Additional samples have been sent to a laboratory in Kuwait for confirmation, and results are expected by Thursday.

Health officials said they feared the disease is already epidemic.

With 17 confirmed cases, "you can expect 10 times more within the larger population," said Dr. Denis Coulombier, a WHO epidemiologist.

In Geneva, WHO spokesman Iain Simpson said of the confirmed cases: "It's a very small number, but it's a very bad sign."

Simpson said the simplest solution is for health workers to visit Basra residents to tell them how to protect themselves from cholera. Prevention methods include boiling drinking and cooking water and regular hand washing after using the bathroom.

But he said health workers are unable to begin the campaign because looters stole hospital vehicles and medical staff are unable to move freely around Basra because of continued violence in the city.

Health experts have been warning of the potential for a large outbreak of cholera, given the shortage of clean water and lack of sanitation in southern Iraq.

During the war, Basra's water treatment system was shut down after coalition airstrikes damaged the electric grid. Residents in the city of 2 million went for several weeks without running water. Many people collected water from the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

Hospitals have reported increasing numbers of patients admitted with diarrhea and other gastrointestinal complaints.

Cholera, a waterborne disease, can be treated if detected early. However, it can prove deadly, especially to malnourished children.

British forces and aid agencies have sent water tankers through the city and surrounding towns, and British engineers have restored about 80 percent of the water system.