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Swine Flu Fears Spread From Ukraine To Afghanistan

Afghan Health Minister Said Mohammad Amin Fatami speaks at a press conference on November 2 about swine flu. He is surrounded by doctors dressed in full protective suits from a Kabul lab designed to diagnose the H1N1 virus.
Afghan Health Minister Said Mohammad Amin Fatami speaks at a press conference on November 2 about swine flu. He is surrounded by doctors dressed in full protective suits from a Kabul lab designed to diagnose the H1N1 virus.
Concerns over swine flu are sweeping countries from Ukraine to Afghanistan as governments scramble to deal with reported outbreaks of the disease.

But it remains unclear how many of the reported flu cases are swine flu rather than ordinary flu. The symptoms of both diseases are easy to confuse and in many countries doctors still have only limited experience diagnosing the new H1N1 strain.

Concerns in Ukraine have run particularly high amid a flu outbreak there. News agencies report some 70 people have died from flu infections, with western Lviv Province particularly hard hit.

The Health Ministry said today that the number of flu patients in the country has risen to 450,000, although it has not been determined how many of those people are suffering from swine flu. Only two days ago, the ministry had said some 255,000 Ukrainians had registered with public health authorities as suffering from the flu, among them 83,000 children.

Urging its citizens not to panic, Ukraine closed the nation's schools for three weeks to avoid the spread of flu and banned large public gatherings.

The World Health Organization said on November 2 there was no evidence that Ukraine had a bad outbreak of swine flu, but at the government's request it has sent a health team there to help the country cope.

'Very Confusing'

RFE/RL’s Ukraine Service director Irena Chalupa reports from Kyiv that uncertainty over the extent of swine flu is heightened by a lack of diagnostic tools in the country.

“It's very, very confusing and extremely hard to get to the bottom of all of this," Chalupa says. "For starters, Ukraine doesn't have the diagnostic capacity to actually be able to establish whether or not someone actually dies from swine flu, so they have to send samples to the World Health Organization in London, which then either confirms or says, 'No, this person did not die of swine flu.'

A family in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, wears surgical masks in an attempt to prevent infection with the H1N1 virus. Experts say such masks are of limited value.
"Last week one case was confirmed as having succumbed to swine flu and now there is talk of 11 other [such] deaths."

Chalupa notes that every year Ukraine suffers an outbreak of ordinary influenza and often some local quarantine measures are taken to curb its spread.

But this year the concerns over swine flu have dramatically raised the stakes in the annual health crisis. And adding to the worry is fear that the country’s health system is ill-equipped to deal with any massive outbreak of H1N1.

The same fears are shared by many other countries in the post-Soviet region.

'Mask Regime'

In parts of Russia, local authorities have introduced a so-called "mask regime" to prevent the spread of flu.

RFE/RL's Russian Service reports that in the Khabarovsk region in Russia's Far East, all theater and cinema visitors are obliged to wear surgical masks. So are workers at shop counters and public transportation employees.

The same regulation was introduced in Russia's Baikal region – Zabaikalye – with a fine of 500 rubles ($17) for anyone caught ignoring the rules.

The first death caused by the H1N1 virus was reported in Belarus today. Officials say forensic tests confirmed the presence of the virus in a
37-year-old woman from the city of Drahchyn, who died last week after she returned from Ukraine.

In Turkmenistan, the government has said nothing officially about a flu outbreak. But in the capital and the regions, individual doctors are reporting cases of ordinary and swine flu with widely varying numbers of incidents and fatalities. The official silence is heightening public fears.

A young man in Kabul sells surgical masks on the street.
In the Balkans, some countries report numerous swine flu infections, others almost none.

Serbia, with 169 confirmed cases and two fatalities, has extended the autumn school vacation in hopes of curbing the spread of the disease.

“This morning [November 3], I made the decision after consultation with epidemiologists and the Ministry of Health," Serbian Minister of Education Zarko Obradovic said on November 3, "to extend the autumn break in schools so that the kids do not come back to school before next Wednesday [November 11] because the incubation time of the virus lasts five to seven days.

"So the best thing is to keep kids at home so that we stop its spread."

Of the confirmed cases in Serbia, the last 35 have been among school-age children.

Demand for gauze masks have soared among popular belief that they can help prevent infection. One factory, in Gornji Milanovac, is making some 60,000 masks a day by working around-the-clock and already has advance orders for all its production through the end of this year.

However, in neighboring Montenegro, the government has reported no cases of swine flu. Opposition members have asked the parliament to open a debate to determine whether this reflects the reality of the health situation in the country.

In Bosnia, two to three cases of swine flu have been reported.

Iranian Schools Closed

Much farther east, Iran’s health officials are also warning the public of the need for additional precautions amid reports of a worsening flu situation.

The Mehr news agency quotes Majlis Health Commission spokesman Mohammadreza Rezaei Kuchi as saying that 3,000 Iranian citizens have been infected with the H1N1 flu across the country. He said 28 have died of the disease.

Two Ukrainian deputies wear protective masks during a parliament session in Kyiv.
Some 70 schools in Tehran and many other schools around the country have closed as a health measure.

Afghanistan has declared a nationwide public health emergency and closed all education institutes for three weeks.

Afghanistan’s Health Minister Said Mohammad Amin Fatami says there have been 700 confirmed cases, with 273 of those among foreign soldiers stationed in the country. Eight Afghans have reportedly died so far.

Fatami says Afghanistan has a laboratory in Kabul equipped to diagnose H1N1 infections and counts on this to help check the spread of the disease.

"We have all the advanced technology and lab equipment to diagnose and isolate and identify the H1N1 influenza virus," he said. "And we are grateful to the U.S. government for providing us this support.”

The Afghan Health Ministry has launched a public awareness campaign since the first case of H1N1 was detected in July.

The campaign of leaflets and television and radio advertisements emphasizes the need for people to wash their hands several times a day as the simplest and most effective thing they can do to help stop the spread of any flu virus.

RFE/RL's Russian Service; Irena Chalupa and Maryana Drach of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service; Gordana Knezevic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service; and Zarif Nazar of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.