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Yugoslavia: Tuberculosis Threatens Kosovars This Winter

As Kosovars hasten to ready their homes for winter, medical professionals say an unexpected new danger is already brewing in the chests of many villagers. For years considered a disease of the past, tuberculosis has reappeared in the province -- as it has elsewhere in the world. Tuberculosis threatens the lives of many Kosovars, who will endure the winter in sub-standard housing with limited sanitation and food. Correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports from Kosovo.

Prizren, Kosovo, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It was last winter that many ethnic Albanian Kosovars were first infected with tuberculosis, a potentially fatal lung virus. They caught it while they were fleeing Serbian paramilitary forces and were forced to find shelter in the hills.

Shehide Shukolli, a 27-year-old mother of four, has been recuperating for three months at a hospital in the southeastern Kosovar town of Prizren. Shukolli says she caught tuberculosis in the hills. The highly infectious disease became much worse when she was later a refugee in Albania, sleeping in a tent with 10 others.

"I stayed away for one year, including some weeks in the mountains when the Serbian offensive was big, and then we came back to our house. We lived there for a couple of weeks, and then again the offensive started. We went again to the mountains. There were times when for several days at a time we drank only water because we saved the food for the children. It was especially difficult with the children. ...In the village of Dragacina, we were 300 people in several houses. For instance, we were nearly 100 people in a house with only four rooms. And we were sleeping on the floor. That's how the disease started."

Although Shukolli says she is feeling much better, she remains in the hospital with her four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son. Both children caught tuberculosis while sleeping on a dirt floor in a tent outside their burned home. Shukolli says the doctors have told her other two children are healthy. But because they are still living in crowded tents, she is worried their good health will not last long.

Hyrije Dedaj is a technician at the hospital. She says that she expects a huge increase in tuberculosis cases this winter:

"Of course, there are many reasons why I'm expecting to have more patients during the winter. This is because of the lack of houses -- people need a roof over their heads. So with the respiratory diseases that our patients now have, there is a lot of pollution, there is a lot of water inside their lungs."

Dedaj says that a major reason why tuberculosis may cause many deaths this winter is because the villagers are reluctant to seek medical care when they first become infected.

"After the war ended [in June], a lot of patients came here...But after some months, the numbers started decreasing. Now we don't have as many as we had immediately after the war. But I am expecting to see more patients during the winter because I know the health habits of these people: Unless their symptoms are very bad and they are unable to continue their normal lives, they don't come to the hospital -- until they are in very bad shape."

In the past, tuberculosis was kept under control in Kosovo by mobile dispensaries that traveled from village to village vaccinating and educating people. But now the few ambulances still working at the hospital are used for emergencies only.

Treatment of tuberculosis in Kosovo was more thorough before this spring's war. Doctors often sent patients to recover for a few months in European mountain spas, where it was believed the clear air was beneficial. But now, patients have nowhere to go but the local medical center, where there is often no running water, electricity or heating. The hallways are ice cold, and patients crowd in rooms that have not been adequately cleaned. The hospital depends on humanitarian donations of medicine. Dedaj says that she has to parcel out the precious drugs only to her sickest patients.

Dedaj is expecting a large number of tuberculosis cases this winter. She worries that her ward, which can accommodate 100 patients, will not be able to care for everyone. When asked what can be done to prevent a tuberculosis epidemic, she says that villagers must do their best to keep warm and dry. She says they must go to the hospital at the first sign of fever, cough or loss of appetite, because tuberculosis can often be cured if it is caught early enough. Other than that, says Dedaj, all that can be done is to pray for an early spring.