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Geese in Tula (AFP) Outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu virus potentially deadly for humans have been confirmed in eight Russian provinces, prompting a mass cull of poultry. But while the Western world is anxiously watching the virus spread westwards and bracing for a possible pandemic, a number of Russian politicians and officials are downplaying the threat of bird flu. Some are even accusing foreign poultry exporters of whipping up paranoia in Russia to win business.


Moscow, 3 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past few weeks, the H5N1 strain of avian flu has killed domestic fowl in several villages close to Moscow.


The fresh outbreaks have sparked fears in Russia that the virus, which so far has been detected only east of the Urals, may spread further.


Russian authorities have responded by culling thousands of birds, placing affected areas under quarantine, and imposing tight controls on battery farmsthat supply Moscow with chicken and eggs.


The Influenza Institute in St. Petersburg is also working on a vaccine that it says could help stem a pandemic if H5N1 mutates into a strain that spreads among humans.


Russian officials and politicians have tried to quell concerns that poultry products could pass on the virus.


Gennadii Onishchenko, Russia's chief epidemiologist, recently followed the lead of several European heads of state by eating chicken in front of the cameras.


Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, joined efforts to restore consumer confidence this week by making a televised visit to a battery farm outside Moscow, along with Onishchenko.


Asked by reporters whether he had abandoned chicken, Mironov enthusiastically praised the meat. "Absolutely not. I actually like it [chicken] very much, especially when it's roasted with the skin, it tastes good. No, there's no question about it, it is well known that [chicken], even if it contains the flu virus, is absolutely safe when cooked," Mironov said.


Criticism Of Media


Compared to other Europeans, Russians have reacted relatively calmly to the bird flu epidemic in their country.


But television and newspaper reports showing culling teams in white suits and face masks throwing dead birds into plastic bags have nonetheless raised a certain amount of alarm.


Some officials are not happy with such media coverage. Russian Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeev last week lambasted the country's media for creating panic by overstating the threat of bird flu.


Calling the media's response to the spread of the virus "unprofessional," he declared that "this subject will be closed and forgotten in a week or two."


Not all officials, however, have taken the same approach. Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, for instance, has condemned Onishchenko for tucking into chicken shashliks on television. He said that officials need to take a serious approach to this issue.


Conspiracy Theories


The bird flu crisis in Russia has also generated brazen conspiracy theories. According to one theory, Western poultry exporters have fanned bird flu fears in order to consolidate their foothold in Russia. Russia is currently the largest market for U.S. poultry.


Sergei Lisovskii, a member of the upper house of parliament and the deputy head of Russia's poultry farming union, tells RFE/RL he suspects foreign poultry companies have caused the bird flu outbreak in Russia by inoculating migratory birds with the virus.


"There is no tragedy in the situation surrounding bird flu in Russia. The small outbreaks in private estates are normal veterinary situations that do not pose a threat to the poultry industry," Lisovskii said. "But hysteria has already been pushed to the maximum, when some predict the death of millions of people for instance. We know about biological terror attacks, so why should this version not be considered? It's neither expensive nor difficult."


Many Russians tend to merely scoff at such conspiracy theories, but epidemiologists are not amused.


Viktor Maleev, the deputy director of the Russian Health Ministry's Institute of Epidemiology, says bird flu is not man-made. "It [bird flu] is not bioterrorism, it is a natural phenomenon. This is politics, these people should know because they are elected, they have to think. These politicians and deputies are seeking to gain some kind of fame through such infections. I don't think this is right. It turns out that I am an infectionist and that everyone is trying to derive profit from my infections," Lisovskii said.


Maleev points out that such conspiracy theories, far-fetched as they may seem, fit into a pattern. When the HIV and SARS viruses emerged, a number of Russian politicians also called them an invention of the United States, causing Russia to lose precious time in the fight against HIV and AIDS.


Conspiracy theories, Maleev says, are once again detracting attention from the source of the problem and hampering much-needed efforts to prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic.

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