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In Zika-Risk Zone, No Buzz Despite WHO Warning

  • Tom Balmforth

In addition to eliminating mosquitoes, the WHO also urged authorities to communicate the threat to people at risk, especially pregnant women, so they can protect themselves. There is little evidence of any such communication in Abkhazia, whose economy relies heavily on tourism from Russia.

In addition to eliminating mosquitoes, the WHO also urged authorities to communicate the threat to people at risk, especially pregnant women, so they can protect themselves. There is little evidence of any such communication in Abkhazia, whose economy relies heavily on tourism from Russia.

SUKHUMI -- Abkhazia is in one of highest-risk parts of Europe for the Zika virus this summer.

But you might not hear about it in the breakaway Georgian region, where officials in the de facto government are outwardly dismissive of the danger and Russian vacationers appear unaware of any potential threat from the mosquito-borne virus.

"To be honest, this is the first I've heard of it," says Denis Varava, 32, a salesman from St. Petersburg who is vacationing in Sukhumi, capital of the Russia-backed region, with his wife and 3-year-old child. "Studying WHO reports is the last thing I do before planning a holiday," he adds, referring to the World Health Organization.

Little known just a year ago, Zika now affects dozens of countries and territories in the Americas, and cases have been reported around the world. In Brazil, the virus has caused more than 1,400 confirmed cases of microcephaly -- a birth defect that can cause babies to have unusually small heads and lead to severe developmental problems -- and raised concerns about the Rio 2016 Olympics in August.

There have been no recorded cases of local transmission of Zika in Russia or Georgia, which share the Black Sea's lush northeast coast -- a popular vacation destination for centuries. The northern stretch of Georgia's coast is taken up by Abkhazia, which broke from central government control in a bloody conflict in the early 1990s and is under the powerful influence of Russia -- one of only a few countries that recognize its independence claim.

On May 18, the WHO said there was only a "low to moderate" risk of the virus spreading to Europe, but that the Portuguese island of Madeira and the northeastern Black Sea region are at greater risk because of the indigenous aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry the virus -- and potentially bring isolated cases into broad circulation. It warned of a "high likelihood" of local transmission in the northeastern Black Sea region this summer "if no measures are taken."

In a brief and combative interview on May 27, Abkhazia's de facto health minister flatly dismissed the threat from Zika -- but said local and Russian authorities had jointly taken preventive steps.

Flanked by several stone-faced officials, Andzor Goov spoke to RFE/RL in the rundown Health Ministry building where sick residents of Abkhazia come with folders of documents to seek authorization for treatment abroad if local medical facilities are unable to help.

He said a mosquito-elimination program had been carried out for the first time since the 1992-93 war with Georgian government forces, and that scientists had studied the region and established that the virus was not present. In the Soviet era, the government used to eliminate mosquitoes in the region to combat malaria.

"This is the first time since the war that this action has been carried out. And it will be carried out constantly," he said. "If this action continues in July and August…then there are no grounds for the spread of Zika -- and there also never were," he added. "This is a preventive action conducted in open reservoirs and in closed buildings to kill mosquitoes."

Two Sides To Isolation

In addition to eliminating mosquitoes, the WHO also urged authorities to communicate the threat to people at risk, especially pregnant women, so they can protect themselves.

There is little evidence of any such communication in Abkhazia, whose economy relies heavily on tourism from Russia.

The disputed status of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, which is recognized as independent by only Russia and a handful of other states, makes its participation in international Zika conferences problematic. A WHO spokesperson told RFE/RL that the Georgian government in Tbilisi -- which in practice has no ties with the separatist leadership in Sukhumi -- should decide whether Abkhazia will send representatives to a meeting of European health experts in Portugal on June 22-24 to discuss the Zika threat. Russia, however, appears to be taking the lead in countermeasures in Abkhazia.

Perhaps ironically, Abkhazia's isolation may be one of its best defenses from the virus.

Goov said local transmission of the virus would first require an infected person to enter Abkhazia and infect a mosquito. The breakaway region's airspace is closed and there are no flights in, while border control from Georgia and Russia is staffed by the Russian security services.

"Mosquitoes can't fly more than 200 kilometers," Goov noted.

Georgian officials have also expressed little concern about Zika.

In February, Paata Imnadze, the deputy head of Georgia's National Center for Virus Control and Public Health, said the threat of an outbreak was minimal because Georgians rarely travel to Latin America, while the carrier mosquito is very rare. He said the mosquito had been sighted only twice in Georgia in the last two years -- once near Batumi, the main city on the government-held stretch of Black Sea coast south of Abkhazia, and once in Zugdidi, near the de facto border.

Nonetheless, Imnadze said health agencies were monitoring closely for potential isolated cases of Zika brought into the country.

Russia Concerned, Despite Denials

In Russia, they are already there. There have been four reported cases of Russian nationals infected with Zika after trips to holiday destinations such as the Dominican Republic.

Several others are displaying symptoms and are being monitored.

In March, government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported that a mosquito fumigation program was under way targeting the aedes carrier, which inhabits the coastal region from Abkhazia to the small Russian town of Dzhugbi, north of Tuapse.

That includes Sochi, the resort city that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics and -- like Abkhazia -- has seen an increase of Russian vacationers since popular destinations Turkey and Egypt were placed virtually off-limits due to tension between Moscow and Ankara and security concerns after the passenger jet bombing that killed more than 200 Russians returning from Sinai beach vacations.

In March, Anna Popova, the head of Russia's consumer-health watchdog, acknowledged that Sochi faced a potential threat because of the presence of the carrier mosquito and what she called the inflow of "foreign tourists."

In February, one prominent Russian health official pointed the finger more firmly at the West, suggesting any Zika outbreak in the area would be the result of a U.S. plot.

Gennady Onishchenko, a longtime Russian consumer-health chief who is now an aide to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, said Russian scientists in Abkhazia had identified a surge since 2012 in the mosquito that carries Zika. He went on to speculate publicly that U.S. intelligence services might be deliberately infecting mosquitoes and unleashing them in the breakaway region.

The latter comment was dismissed as Onishchenko's trademark brand of conspiracy theory, and Medvedev 11 days later issued Onishchenko a public warning -- which was subsequently retracted without reason -- for not "following the established rules of public speaking."

But there are signs that Russia has genuine concerns that have nothing to do with the United States. Less than a month later, Popova announced that Russia was helping Abkhazia eliminate mosquitoes.

On the ground, there is little apparent concern as summer approaches. Varava, the Russian vacationer, is skeptical about the WHO warning. "Every year they need some kind of new virus," he says.

"There's an expression in Russia that means to take things with a pinch of salt," he adds. "What's more, the Black Sea region includes Russia and there the security services work well."

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