Swine Flu Pandemic Peaks In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- After three weeks of panic, pandemonium and politics, the initial swine flu pandemic in Ukraine has peaked. In three weeks, 1.6 million fell ill, while 388 died.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko visits a hospital in the western city of Lutsk earlier this month. She has criticized her political rivals for hindering her efforts to end the H1N1 pandemic.

Today the government is expected to end a nationwide ban on public gatherings, lift travel restrictions and order the reopening of parliament, schools and universities in all but 11 regions.

But the country, with its anemic health-care system, is still reeling from having 1.6 million people fall sick with the flu, resulting in the hospitalization of 97,000 people and the deaths of 388 in three weeks.

At the height of the frenzy, tens of thousands were becoming ill each day, dozens were dying and the Ukraine navy said it could not carry out combat duty because of a lack of manpower.

The National Security & Defence Council said there were constitutional prerequisites to declare a state of emergency and politicians briefly talked of postponing presidential elections, scheduled for Jan. 17.

A rising death toll added fear to the emotions rattling Ukraine as it ran out of essential medicines and supplies.

Pharmacies looked like Soviet-era shops with long lines of customers queuing for nonexistent surgical masks and cold medicines. The Health Ministry's stock of Tamiflu, an anti-viral designed to slow the spread of influenza, was used up in days and people began to hoard lemons and garlic for homemade cures.

Ukraine's fragile health system was soon paralyzed and rumours proliferated that people were dying of a new, more lethal strain of influenza virus.

As the World Health Organization rushed a nine-member outbreak assessment team to Ukraine in early November, politicians rounded on each other, predicting mass illness and death.

President Viktor Yushchenko declared his country had been hit simultaneously by two seasonal flus and the "California" (swine) flu, and blamed his political arch-rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for failing to prepare for the outbreak.

Ms. Tymoshenko, who is running for president, provided daily television updates on the pandemic and appeared in public swathed in hospital gowns and wearing a surgical mask. She criticized her rivals for hindering her efforts to end the pandemic.

When parliament voted to spend US$125-million to fight the flu, Mr. Yushchenko refused to authorize it, saying it would fuel inflation. Instead, he launched his own appeal for foreign aid.

Not to be outdone, presidential frontrunner Viktor Yanukovich, a former prime minister and leader of the Regions' Party, pledged to use election campaign donations to buy flu medicine and 20 million surgical masks.

"Ukrainian politicians, including the two main presidential candidates, do not really care about the fate of their people," columnist Kateryna Grushenko wrote in the Kyiv Post. "They allowed themselves to turn the H1N1 epidemic into a PR show during days when educational, medical, and society-oriented coverage should have been provided to the population."

As the pandemic entrenched itself, straining hospitals and emergency rooms to the breaking point, Ukraine's panic grew. With no authoritative explanation for what was happening, bloggers and conspiracy theorists suggested the country was in the grip of a mysterious, more lethal virus.

The government and WHO were deliberately playing down the pandemic's death toll, some suggested.

When Norwegian scientists announced they had found a mutated form of the swine flu virus that could infect deeper into the airways and cause more severe disease, Ukraine's news media began reporting that doctors conducting postmortems on some patients had found their lungs had virtually disintegrated.

The WHO tried to temper the sensational reports saying "viruses with similar mutations had been detected in several other countries, including Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, Ukraine and the United States."

"No links between the small numbers of patients infected with the mutated virus have been found and the mutation does not appear to spread," it added.

By last week, the WHO said its preliminary analysis of Ukraine's pandemic showed "the virus is very similar to other strains causing the current influenza A(H1N1) pandemic elsewhere in Europe."

This virus is the main cause of Ukraine's problems and current pandemic vaccines will provide protection, it added.

Only Ukraine doesn't have any vaccine. Short of cash and hoping to combat any pandemic with Tamiflu, it did not order vaccine.

Now, it is appealing to foreign countries, including Canada, for vaccine donationsy.

The United States has already volunteered to deliver one million vaccine doses in December.

But the WHO is recommending 10% of Ukraine's 46 million people be inoculated by January.

Source: National Post