Community News

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ukraine Mystery Outbreak Sparks WHO Concern as Disease Spreads

By Kateryna Choursina and Halia Pavliva

Newlyweds in Lviv, Ukraine, on Saturday. The government has ordered an anti-flu crackdown. (Picture courtesy

Nov. 2 (Bloomberg) -- The World Health Organization sent a team of experts to Ukraine today to investigate an outbreak of respiratory disease that’s sickened a quarter of a million people and left pharmacies without masks or flu remedies.

A group of epidemiologists, physicians, laboratory technicians and communications advisers is scheduled to arrive tonight in Kiev, Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman in Geneva, said in a telephone interview today.

Ukraine faces an outbreak of flu-like illness that’s killed at least 67 people and infected 255,000, according to the country’s first deputy health minister Vasyl Lazoryshynets. About 22 patients tested positive for swine flu, Lazoryshynets said. It’s “difficult to tell” whether the pandemic H1N1 virus is responsible for all the cases, according to Hartl.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” he said. The crew of experts will collect samples from patients and send them to the WHO’s influenza collaborating center in London for diagnosis. The WHO may have more information on Nov. 4, Hartl said.

Ukraine’s government has closed schools and banned public events. In four of Kiev’s 10 districts, a majority of drugstores posted handwritten signs in their windows that read “no masks.” A central information line for the city’s drugstores said yesterday most stores had run out of protective masks or flu and cold remedies such as paracetamol, called acetaminophen in the U.S., and new supplies were expected later in the week.

Onions, Garlic and Lemons

The streets of Lviv, the city near the Polish border that’s reported the most cases, were empty yesterday, with museums, restaurants and stores closed, said Halyna Shymanska, a 47-year- old doctor. Shymanska, who runs a private ultrasound diagnostics office in nearby Truskavets, said pharmacies have run out of masks as well as antivirals and basic flu medicines.

“People are relying on folk remedies like onion and garlic,” she said in a telephone interview.

Garlic and lemons, also used as a flu remedy, are now scarce in the town of Cherasky, in central Ukraine. The price of a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of lemons there has quadrupled to 50 hryvnia ($6.10) in the past week.

About 15,000 people are being treated at hospitals across Ukraine, Lazoryshynets said at a press conference in Kiev today.

Ukraine has asked the U.S., the European Union, NATO and neighbors for anti-flu drugs. Poland and Slovakia sent protective masks and Roche Holding AG’s drug Tamiflu to Ukraine after President Viktor Yushchenko said the country couldn’t fight an outbreak of pandemic influenza alone, according to a statement from the government.

‘A Bit of a Flap’

H1N1, a new flu strain that’s evolved in pigs, humans and birds, has sickened at least 440,000 people and killed over 5,700 since it was discovered in Mexico and the U.S. in April, the World Health Organization said last week. The WHO estimates seasonal flu causes up to 500,000 deaths a year.

“It’s a bit like Mexico in the beginning,” said John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry in London, adding that Ukrainian authorities may not have the scientific resources they need to observe the outbreak closely. “One’s first reaction is that not due to any fault of their own, they’re getting into a bit of a flap.”

It’s unlikely that the virus has mutated and become more deadly, according to Oxford. “It doesn’t fit with the experience of other countries at the moment, so why should the Ukraine be different,” he said.

An analysis of early data on the outbreak suggests severe cases and deaths in Ukraine occurred among adults aged between the ages of 20 and 50, according to the Geneva-based WHO.

The U.K. Health Protection Agency estimated on Oct. 29 that about 521,000 of the country’s 61 million residents have gotten the virus since the pandemic began, and 137 of them have died. That’s a death rate of 0.03 percent, similar to the one Ukraine’s numbers indicate.

Across the Black Sea, Bulgaria also said it was hit by a flu epidemic, closed schools and banned gatherings, the Sofia News Agency reported, citing Angel Kunchev, head of the health ministry’s department of control of communicable diseases.

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