KYIV (Reuters) -- Ukraine's president and prime minister have hurled angry accusations at each other over ways of fighting an influenza epidemic, now a major factor in campaigning for a January election in which they are rivals.
A total of 189 people have died in the outbreak, the Health Ministry said, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has cancelled political rallies and ordered schools shut to try to curb it.
The toll included 17 deaths from the H1N1 flu, First Deputy Health Minister Vasyl Lazoryshynets told journalists.
The health scare has caused panic across Ukraine and has become, like other hot issues such as contacts with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a political football between President Viktor Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, both contenders in the January 17 poll for president.
Weighing in against Yushchenko, Tymoshenko told ministers that the president, by failing to approve a law to release $125 million to fight the outbreak, was endangering human life.
"Without the signing of this law, the government cannot fight this epidemic today," she said.
"The action of the president...is an action today against Ukraine. The president will be responsible for every person who is ill today or dies."
Yushchenko, who in late October gave the go-ahead to rises in pensions and the minimum wage in defiance of the IMF and pleas by Tymoshenko, hit back immediately.
Signing a proposed law to release anti-flu funds would lead to new money being printed and a devaluation of the national currency, the hryvnya, he said.
"I will not be the author of such a policy. I don't need to be blackmailed. I have the right of president. I am making a decision [to veto the bill] and it's made," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Implying further criticism of Yushchenko, Tymoshenko said Ukraine's economy will undergo an "extremely difficult" period without $3.8 billion from the IMF, which her aides fear would rebound on Kyiv's ability to pay for Russian gas.
The fund refrained from releasing the funds -- part of a $16.4 billion program to counter the economic crisis -- after Yushchenko signed the minimum-wage law into force.
Ex-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the biggest loser in a 2004 pro-Western revolution, and Tymoshenko are front-runners in the race for president.
But the personal attack by Tymoshenko on Yushchenko confirmed that the run-up to the January election is likely to be dominated by sniping between the two erstwhile allies who once stood side by side in the "Orange Revolution."
Tymoshenko painted a dark picture of the health threat that seemed certain to add to uncertainty among the population of 46 million over its true extent.
Optimism that authorities could quickly get to grips with the epidemic had proved premature, she said. "Today the epidemic is not relaxing its embrace," she said.
The outbreak of respiratory illness began in western Ukraine but is now spreading east, with cases appearing near the Russian border and in the south in Crimea.
On the streets of the capital, Kyiv, many people are wearing face masks. People are being turned away from some embassies and other public buildings if they are not wearing masks.
The World Health Organization says it is assuming most cases of influenza in Ukraine had been caused by the H1N1 virus. It says the outbreak may indicate how the virus will develop in the northern hemisphere's winter.
Yushchenko, who appears to have no chance of reelection according to popularity ratings, has accused Tymoshenko and Yanukovych of criminal negligence in the way they have handled the flu outbreak.
He said both leaders had been aware of the epidemic in the week they organized mass rallies for their own campaigns.
Tymoshenko on November 11 renewed an accusation that Yushchenko could be preparing to introduce a state of emergency as a pretext for putting off the January 17 election.