Ukraine pleads for help as flu epidemic spreads

Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko has called on the international community to help the country combat the swine flu epidemic which hit the country last week. Kiev is taking emergency measures to stop the outbreak.

The president has sent letters to the European Commission, NATO’s Secretary General, and the heads of Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the US asking for humanitarian aid, said the presidential press service. Ukraine needs antiviral medicine, medical masks, lung ventilators and other equipment. Several countries have already agreed to help, while Russia offered aid on its own initiative.

Ukrainian government has made an emergency purchase of Tamiflu medicine from Switzerland. A shipment of 300 million doses, worth $2.5 million, was airlifted on Sunday night. According to the president’s press service, the seller offered a discount price for Ukraine. Given that it could be the only remedy for those infected, Prime Minister Timoshenko took a hard line on its distribution:

"These medications have been imported at a wholesale price of 67 Hryvnia per pack. And what I'm holding now in my hand now is what our Foreign Minister purchased in a pharmacy the other day for 6000 Hryvnia, and this package contains 10 packs,” she exclaimed.

“This means that 1 pack is sold at 600 Hryvnia! These swindlers in privately-owned pharmacies sell it to people at ten times the price,” she added.

The medicine will be delivered to hospitals and medical emergency service to treat flu patients.It will not be sold in drug stores to prevent speculative trade. Timoshenko added that a second purchase of a similar amount of medicine is being considered.

Meanwhile, the epidemic is spreading over the country. The Health Ministry said Monday that of the 70 victims of flu and acute respiratory diseases who died over the last two weeks, 22 have been confirmed to have had the A/H1N1 strain.

Earlier it had been estimated that almost 185,000 people were suffering in Ukraine, and more than 7,000 have been admitted to hospitals. Of those, 123 were in critical condition.

As the death toll from respiratory diseases continues to rise, panic spreads among the population. In Kiev, a city so far untouched by the virus outbreak, roughly every third citizen wears a protective mask, at times a self-made one.

Anti-flu drugs and related paraphernalia are increasingly difficult to come accross. Angry people point fingers at everyone, from drug store owners to the authorities, However, officials say that it's the people who are responsible for the problem. Denis Shevchenko, the head of Ukraine's pharmaceutical union, explained:

"The medication is ordered based on a calculation of adequare supply of treatment and preventive therapy drugs per person," he said.

"If, in a fir of panic, people buy ten times more than they require, any forcast of this process becomes uneless," he concluded.

It is difficult to say how many of the people affected have A/H1N1. Ukraine has too small a number of laboratories to be able to identify the swine flu virus and has to rely on foreign services, which makes the testing process even longer. The government plans to purchase more equipment to monitor the epidemic more efficiently. A mission of the World Health Organization is to arrive in Ukraine soon to help combat the outbreak.

So far quarantine has been declared in nine regions that are most affected by the disease. Schools and universities have been closed until further notice, and people are advised to stay at home and keep away from crowds.

There are some fears that the epidemic will harm the presidential election campaign which is currently underway in Ukraine. The election is scheduled for January 17, and with restrictions on public assembly, which some politicians have suggested imposing due to the outbreak, campaigning may become difficult for candidates. However, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Turchinov assured that the outbreak will not stop the election. “Despite temporary difficulties with the spread of the infection, the election will go smoothly,” he said.

Read also – H1N1 Epidemic: World Health Organisation Urges People of High Risk to Get Vaccinated