Ukraine gripped by the A(H1N1) flu virus

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A sudden flu outbreak has brought life in Ukraine to a halt. All public meetings are banned, schools are closed for three weeks, and nine regions are in quarantine. The Ukrainian health ministry says 70 people have died of the A(H1N1) flu virus and 15,000 are in hospital.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko focused the world’s attention on his country’s problems in an impassioned speech calling on the European Union, the World Health Organisation and NATO to come to Ukraine’s aid. The sudden flu outbreak was more than the country could cope with.

What’s more, the dramatic appeal came amidst rumours of biological warfare in the capital Kiev. A plane was said to have flown over the city releasing powder containing a mutated variety of the virus. The Ukrainian government categorically denies the reports. But in a country where everything is in short supply and presidential elections are on the horizon in January, such stories are hard to quash.

According to Piet Spijkers of Dutch Humanitarian Aid to the Children of Ukraine Foundation, the problem is that the Ukrainian government has systematically denied the existence of the A(H1N1) flu virus, known in the Netherlands as Mexican flu. It has provided no public information and taken no precautionary measures.

“Of course the situation is miserable, and a bit panic-stricken, but that’s typical of a country like Ukraine. They knew this was coming months in advance, just as much as we knew it in the West. But the government denies there are orphans, it denies there are street children, and they thought the Mexican flu was only for Mexicans. And now panic has struck.”

Mr Spijkers describes the situation in the children’s hospitals his foundation supports as appalling. There is a lack of basic medical supplies. There are barely any Flu tests, vaccines or anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu. The children’s hospital in Lviv, 130 kilometres from the Polish border, has 100 Tamiflu tablets for 160 patients. “If children get ill, we can’t even establish whether they have the A(H1N1) virus. We just have to go by the symptoms,” he says.

Lviv, with a population of nearly a million, is one of the nine regions that have been placed in quarantine. The city’s pharmacies have been emptied. Even garlic, a popular household fever remedy, is either exorbitantly priced or sold out.

Election fever
The flu panic seems partly to have arisen out of political power games. Presidential elections are due in January, and both opposition and government know the electorate will judge them on their handling of the flu epidemic, says Mr Spijkers.

"I think politicians here are using or exploiting it to strike a political pose for the presidential elections in January. Of course there is something going on. But I’m afraid they’ve made a mess of it and now it has a political background.”

It’s in the interest of both President Yushchenko and his challenger, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, that the public sees their concern. According to Mr Spijkers there’s no other explanation as to why the government should be making such a show of the problems.

It’s unlikely that the flu will be a real vote winner. Even without the pandemic, the health service in the former Soviet republic is in a deplorable state. Ordinary Ukrainians barely have any access to decent medical care. Infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are rife.

The WHO is concerned at the speed with which the flu is spreading in Ukraine. A team of experts has been sent to the country to investigate whether the A(H1N1) virus has mutated. The organisation says the situation is actually no worse than in other countries. However, there is a striking rise in the number of patients admitted to hospital with lung diseases. It’s not clear whether they are infected with the A(H1N1) virus.