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Police officers wear masks at Baghdad Airport, Iraq, Wednesday, March 4, 2020. From religion to sports, countries were taking drastic and increasingly visible measures to curb the new coronavirus that first emerged in China and was spreading quickly through Europe, the Mideast and the Americas. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Canadian military personnel in Iraq are on high alert following reports the novel coronavirus is spreading within the country.

Chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance says troops have been ordered to protect themselves, including through proper hygiene and keeping their distance from Iraqi forces who may be infected with the virus, which can cause a respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

Two people are believed to have died from the disease in Iraq - one in Baghdad and the other in the northern Kurdistan region where Canadian special forces have been operating for several years.

The reports follow concerns about a major outbreak in neighbouring Iran that has raised concerns about it spreading to other parts of the Middle East.

Vance says he is worried about the virus spreading in countries with inadequate health-care systems that make it difficult to detect and treat.

At the same time, Vance says the Canadian Armed Forces is stepping up its planning for how to respond to a potential pandemic here in Canada, including how to handle a situation where up to a quarter of all military members are sick and unable to work.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2020.