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First Confirmed Swine Flu Cases Cause Panic in Kazakh Cities

New Measures Against Swine Flu
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Employees and passengers at the international airport in Almaty, Kazakhstan, are taking heightened precautions against the risk of swine flu.

At least 14 cases of the swine flu virus (H1N1) have been confirmed in Kazakhstan since the first such case was reported in Astana last week.

Most of the patients are Kazakh students who have returned home from European countries.

It is the first time swine flu cases have been officially registered in Central Asia.

The news has caused panic among some Astana and Almaty residents. Many people have stopped buying pork, thinking it might cause the disease, and travel agencies say they have received many phone calls from clients who are considering canceling or postponing their planned trips to Europe.

Health officials have been trying to calm people down, saying they have enough stockpiles of anti-viral drugs and that all necessary measures have been taken to prevent the spread of the disease.

Quarantine regimes are in place in Astana and Almaty, and special working groups have been set up to contain any domestic outbreak of swine flu.

Scanners have been installed at airports and main railway stations where medical teams check arriving passengers’ body temperatures. Anyone with fever or flu-like symptoms is sent for further tests.

Some Kazakh health officials have even suggested categorizing the threat of a swine flu epidemic as a national security issue.

In other Central Asian nations, officials have taken measures to prevent the spread of the disease.

Special teams have been stationed at the Tashkent international airport in Uzbekistan to conduct medical inspections to determine whether any passengers arriving from abroad are infected with the H1N1 virus.

Kyrgyz flight attendants were told to register any passenger showing symptoms of influenza.

Tajikistan has introduced a national program to contain the outbreak of new influenza strains, including swine flu and bird flu.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov has called on the country to take the risk of the disease seriously.

What Swine Flu?

But despite the official measures across the region, public awareness of swine flu remains low, especially in rural areas where many people say they simply have never heard of such a disease. Those who have heard of swine flu largely dismiss it as a problem of far-away countries, and possibly of those who consume pork.

Islom Odilov, a 24-year-old cook in Dushanbe, said he doesn’t have “any idea at all about swine flu.”

“I don’t know what swine flu is,” said Odilov. “Our media and television don’t mention this disease. This topic doesn’t exist here.” He continued: “I don’t know what I should do if I catch this disease. I don’t know how to treat it.”

For many Central Asians, however, the swine flu cases in Kazakhstan have brought the problem closer to home.

Sadriddin, a resident of Khujand, Tajikistan, said swine flu wasn’t an issue of concern for him until very recently. Now, Sadriddin is worried that the hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrants who work in Russia and Kazakhstan might bring the disease home with them.

“Those who work in Russia and other places should undergo medical check-ups upon their return,” said Sadriddin. “It would be for their own benefit, and would also be a service for the rest of us.”

After the news broke of the Kazakh swine flu cases broke, authorities in Sadriddin’s home town swiftly set up a center for protection against swine flu, where people can get information about preventative measures against the disease they have only just learned about.

RFE/RL’s Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek Services contributed to this report.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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