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Ukraine Shuts Schools, Bans Public Events Over Flu Deaths


Ukrainians line up to buy paper masks at a pharmacy in Lviv.
(RFE/RL) -- Ukraine is closing schools, banning all public events, and restricting internal travel for three weeks following an outbreak of H1N1 swine flu.

The Interfax news agency quoted Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko as saying that 48 people have died of swine flu in the country.

"Starting [October 30], all educational institutions without exception, public and private, will be switched to a three-week holiday," Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko announced at a cabinet meeting broadcast on Ukrainian television:

Tymoshenko also said all public gatherings would likewise be banned.

"We will make a decision today to cancel all mass meetings, concerts, film screenings, for a period of three weeks," she said.

Tymoshenko said the government will restrict "unnecessary" travel inside Ukraine. She said the three-week period could be extended, if deemed necessary.

Tymoshenko said the government will also quarantine nine regions in western Ukraine, where swine flu has been diagnosed.

Health Minister Vasyl Knyazevych told reporters the quarantine may be extended to the entire country because the virus is spreading "very fast."

"If you have any symptoms such as a temperature, cough, runny nose or headache, you should immediately go see a doctor and he will decide whether to treat you at home or to send you to the hospital," Knyazevych said.

Flu Measures

Ukraine's measures are by far the strictest in Europe, where many countries are dealing with far higher levels of infection. As of this week, 17 countries in Europe have confirmed deaths due to swine flu. The United Kingdom is by far the worst affected, with more than 100 deaths out of an estimated 500,000 cases.

But while a vaccination campaign began this month, the country has imposed no national restrictions like those announced in Kyiv.

Officials say Ukraine has enough flu medication for now. But according to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Halyna Tereshchuk in Lviv, the region appears unprepared to deal with a possible epidemic.

Tereshchuk said there is "panic" in the region. "People are lining up in front of pharmacies, but many of them lack antiviral medication and gauze masks, while prices for many drugs are rising."

Residents have been unable to buy Tamiflu, one of the most effective known drugs against swine flu, and hospitals say they lack enough beds.

Politic Effects

The Ukrainian government's tough swine-flu measures are already having political repercussions. Campaigning for the country's presidential election in January kicked off last weekend, and the pro-Moscow opposition Party of Regions criticized Tymoshenko for endangering supporters by holding an election rally on October 31.

After attending his own rally on October 30 in the city of Kharkiv, Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych called for a moratorium on mass campaign gatherings. Tymoshenko announced she would cancel all campaign events.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, political expert Oleksiy Holubytsky warned politicizing the government's swine-flu measures could escalate.

"The flu epidemic in western Ukraine could be used as a pretext to announce a state of emergency that would even postpone the presidential election," Holubytsky says.

"Because you could say the election would cause many people to be gathered together and threaten to further spread the pandemic."

Ukrainian politics have been paralyzed by years of infighting between Tymoshenko and her estranged Orange Revolution ally, President Victor Yushchenko. Holubytsky says postponing the election would mostly benefit Yushchenko, whose approval ratings are in the single digits.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report; with news agency reports