Community News

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The ministry of misinformation: Flu fears and rumours paralyze Ukraine

The Globe and Mail
2009 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

KIEV -- With classes cancelled after the government declared a flu epidemic, Eric Barsadanyan and his friends spend their days hunched over cigarettes and soft drinks in the gloom of an empty coffee shop on the third floor of an equally empty shopping mall.

They had not heard of the H1N1 virus even a week ago. But they are pretty sure they understand it now.

“You catch it from imported food and clothing that isn't clean,” said Mr. Barsadanyan, an 18-year-old first-year medical student who wears his close-cropped hair shaved into stripes along the sides.

He is not worried because he heard that the Ministry of Health has taken a somewhat unusual step. “They sprayed the city,” he explained, “with the necessary products.”

Ukraine has been awash with such misinformation about H1N1 for the last week, since Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko set off a public panic by shutting schools, banning public gatherings and warning that whole cities might have to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease. They were the most draconian measures taken by any country since the flu first appeared in Mexico last spring.

But it is still far from clear whether Ukraine is in the grips of a runaway H1N1 epidemic, as some officials have suggested, or whether the precautions were a confused overreaction to a predictable winter outbreak of seasonal flu.

The numbers coming from different government agencies and state media have been wildly contradictory.

Depending on the source, the number of reported cases of flu and respiratory illness last month ranged from under 7,000 all the way up to half a million, with no indication of how many people normally fall ill or die from the flu in the winter in this country of 40 million people.

The Ministry of Health has also issued conflicting information on the number of flu cases, flu-related deaths and suspected deaths due to the H1N1 virus. At one point, according to a state news agency report, a ministry official said flu deaths were down 10 per cent over last year.

An initial assessment from the World Health Organization – which sent a team of medical experts to Ukraine after a desperate plea for emergency aid from the country's President – was that the H1N1 virus could be confirmed as the cause of one of some 80 reported deaths from flu in the past two weeks.

The inconsistencies only increased public uncertainty about what was actually happening, and many Ukrainians appeared to have decided to prepare for the worst.

Across the country, people have emptied pharmacies of masks, gauze, vitamins and every variety of flu and cold medication. Rumours abound that helicopters have tried to disinfect Kiev by spraying it with chlorine gas. Government officials have gone on national television to deny other rumours that rural western Ukraine is in the grip of a deadly unnamed plague.

The flu epidemic was announced against the backdrop of a tightly fought presidential campaign pitting President Victor Yushchenko, the leader of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, against Ms. Tymoshenko. He was forced to cancel a planned campaign rally last week after the ban on public gatherings was announced.

A third candidate, the opposition leader Victor Yanukovych, has accused his rivals of trying to exploit public health fears to advance their flagging campaigns.

For many ordinary people, the political squabbling has added another element of doubt to the H1N1 scare.

“There is always some kind of fever – economic, health-wise or political – before an election. It's a nice way for politicians to show they are doing something,” said Larysa Kostrikina, a graphic artist. “I think this one will be over when the election is over” in January.

Not even gauze was available in the city by midweek. But that did not stop people from stopping in at every pharmacy in hopes of finding a talisman against a virus that many referred to as the “lung plague.”

Anything, it seemed, would do for the crowd gathered around the window of a tiny drug store outside the entrance to the Pozdnyaki subway station in Kiev one evening last week.

“I'm not sick. I just want to strengthen my immune system,” said one middle-aged woman wrapped in a heavy overcoat and a fraying homemade mask. She was looking for a Russian-made cream that was particularly sought-after in Kiev because it is supposed to kill viruses when spread inside the nostrils.

In Canada and many Western countries, the H1N1 virus has been in the news for months and a public debate has been raging for weeks over how to handle the vaccine. That debate has passed many other countries by, however.

In Ukraine, until the government abruptly declared an epidemic last week, the new virus was the subject of only sketchy references in the media.

“People naturally are panicked because they don't know about this and haven't been prepared for it,” said Michail Radutsky, president of the private Boris Clinic, one of the biggest private clinics in the country.

Its doctors have seen four times the usual number of patients in the past week, he said. Some have flu-like symptoms. Most, however, are just frightened.

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