PRAGUE, March 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Azerbaijan is fighting to hold back a wave of panic following the March 13 announcement that three people from the same family in the Salyan region on the Caspian coast had died of bird flu.
"Based on the tests undertaken by the World Health Organization, the Health Ministry of Azerbaijan has confirmed the diagnosis of bird flu in the three people concerned," said ministry spokeswoman Samaya Mamedova.
Mamedova said tests on six other people from the same region had proved negative. The ministry appears to have wasted no time in making the announcement, but still faces an uphill battle to convince a skeptical public that the situation is not worse than officially announced. Flu Symptoms On Rise
Health Minister Oktai Shiraliev revealed on March 13 that more than 100 people had been admitted to one hospital alone in Baku with symptoms similar to those of bird flu. However, epidemiological tests have shown that H5N1 was not the cause.
Azerbaijan's population has little trust in government. If panic spreads, the country's clinics and hospitals could be overwhelmed.
When bird flu was first reported in Azerbaijan in February, the government threw a three-kilometer sanitary cordon around the affected area and culled thousands of domestic poultry. The government also says that it is spending $39 million on an information campaign and preventative measures to ensure against the spread of the deadly virus. Public Panic
That may not be enough, though, to reassure a population that has little trust in government. If panic spreads, the country's clinics and hospitals could well be overwhelmed.
Neighboring Georgia and Armenia face similar problems. As in Azerbaijan, it is common practice for families in rural areas to keep poultry at home. It is almost impossible to prevent them coming into contact with wild birds.
So far, neither Georgia nor Armenia has recorded instances of bird flu in humans, but fear of the virus is widespread. On March 13, the Georgian Health Ministry reported that some 140 people had come to the Tbilisi Infectious Diseases hospital following the death of two schoolgirls from pneumonia. The National Center for the Control of Disease said the deaths provoked panic in the city. 'No Epidemic Of Any Kind'
Davit Meskhishvili, a senior official at the Georgian Health Ministry, called a press conference to stress that there was no cause for fear.
"I want to rule out 100 percent that there is any kind of epidemic of the type that has been under discussion recently," Meskhishvili said. "This is just gossip and no more. There is no epidemic of any kind either in [Tbilisi] or in the country at large."
The Georgian Health Ministry said influenza viruses were commonplace in the spring and that just three years ago it had been forced to close down schools in the capital because of a particularly virulent strain.
That may be true. But the difficulty lies in convincing a population that has so little trust in the ways of government.