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Ukraine: Authorities, Crimean Villagers Worry That Bird Flu Is Spreading

Some locals have opposed official bird culls (epa) Authorities acted swiftly when news of a bird-flu outbreak in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula emerged early this month. But now Ukrainian officials fear that efforts to contain the deadly disease may not be working, and are considering placing the entire Crimean Peninsula under quarantine.

Prague, 20 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- An outbreak of bird flu in the Crimean Peninsula is still a serious threat despite the Ukrainian authorities' efforts to contain the disease -- including the killing of more than 60,000 domestic birds in the past two weeks.

Ukraine quickly implemented tough measures to combat the disease after the outbreak was discovered in early December. Troops were dispatched to cull birds and a state of emergency was declared in three regions located in the wetlands near Lake Sivash. The region is a popular resting place for migratory birds thought to be potential carriers of the disease.

The quarantine was initially imposed on 15 villages in the peninsula, but reports of poultry dying in 20 additional villages has raised alarm that bird flu is continuing to spread.

Petro is a resident of Nekrasovka, a quarantined village near Sivash Bay, says he noticed something wrong with his poultry only recently.

"My birds started dying some two weeks ago. In the village itself things went wrong some two months ago. [The disease starts] when the head of a bird turns bluish and a bird starts twisting his head. Twists, twists, and dies," Petro says.

Veterinarians have ordered that domestic fowl be kept indoors and that farmers' homes be disinfected. But while officials insist the measures are intended to quarantine birds and not people, many villagers are becoming frustrated.

In the quarantined village of Prisivashskoye, people gathered this week to vent their fears and concerns.

Villager Valentina Makarova recalls how her domestic birds were dying.

"I saw my rooster just sitting and not moving yesterday. My second little rooster was also sitting this way -- scum coming from his beak, his eyes swollen," Makarova says. "I informed local official Yeremey [his first name] about it. They [officials] came, have drawn up a report, and have taken my birds."

Makarova's neighbor Vasily claims that earlier this month 12 of his hens died in one night. Vasily maintains that his birds were well cared for, and says he didn't believe veterinary officials who told him they died due to vitamin deficiencies and exhaustion.

Vasily says the official stance has since changed to acknowledge the outbreak of bird flu and to take steps to counter it. But while he understands the reasoning, he admits that he is unhappy with officials coming to destroy his poultry.

Vasily is not alone.

AP news agency reports that some impoverished villagers in the Crimea are putting up strong resistance to authorities who arrive to kill their domestic fowl. Last week, villagers reportedly chased emergency workers with pitchforks. Others were said to be hiding their birds from authorities.

But Volodymir Ivanov, a press secretary of the Crimean department of the Ukrainian Emergency Situations Ministry, tells RFE/RL that such responses are the exception.

"For two weeks we were traveling from one village to another and have monitored the reaction, have monitored how officials of the Emergency Situations Ministry are interacting with people," Ivanov says. "I can tell you that in some villages, understanding people handed over their poultry. In other places, people are doing so reluctantly. In other places people do not want to do that at all. However, people understand they have to do it [hand over their poultry]."

Ivanov says that one key to halting the spread of the disease is to prevent domestic poultry from being exposed to wild birds. If current efforts are not successful, he warns, the entire peninsula could be under quarantine as early as this week.

Ivanov also says that people who have been in contact with dead birds are being closely monitored for health problems. While no human infections have yet been recorded in Ukraine, there are concerns that the H5N1 bird-flu strain -- which has killed nearly 70 people in Asia -- could emerge.