Flues, Plagues and Biological Weapons in Ukraine

by Tammy Lynch

Listening to Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko, we might be tempted to conclude that Ukraine is doomed. Certain to collapse under the weight of an overwhelming tripartite plague of viral pathogens.

“People are dying,” Yushchenko told television viewers. “The epidemic is killing doctors. This is absolutely unprecedented and inconceivable in the 21st century.”

Moreover, “Unlike similar epidemics in other countries, three pathogens of viral infections came to Ukraine at the same time: two of them are seasonal flu and the third is the A/H1N1. According to virologists, such a combination of infections due to mutation may produce a new, even more aggressive virus.”

The epidemic he spoke of is the H1N1 virus, which is blamed, sadly, for the deaths of approximately 90 people in Ukraine over the last several weeks. These deaths should not be minimized or dismissed. But, Yushchenko’s statement is high on panic-inducing hyperbole and low on facts.

Every year in Ukraine people die from the seasonal flu. Yesterday, the government claimed that the number of deaths from flu this year is actually 10 percent below last year. Since we don’t have access to documents, it’s impossible to know if this claim is accurate. But, it’s possible.

The World Health Organization recognizes a “big event” in Ukraine, but also suggests a “moderate impact.” According to Bloomberg, at the moment, infection rates seem to be in line with the United Kingdom, which has seen a .03 percent death rate after infection from H1N1 with 137 deaths in two months.

It is possible that infection and death rates will continue to rise exponentially, particularly given Ukraine’s horribly equipped and poorly maintained health facilities.

But statements like those from Yushchenko and other officials have not been helpful. The President seems determined to create panic. Because of these statements, many Ukrainians suggest that the country is actually facing an outbreak of a more virulent illness, such as pneumonic plague. Several bloggers even suggested that a pharmaceutical company had accidentally released a biological weapon. (See this google search link for the myriad of stories on this.)

Prime Minister Tymoshenko certainly didn’t help matters by announcing a “quarantine” of nine regions, limiting travel, banning all public gatherings and attempting to take control of pharmaceutical pricing. Such a strong reaction suggests a very strong virus. But while Yushchenko is sewing uncertainty, Tymoshenko is trying to show iron.

Unfortunately, this iron came after the illness had already hit. The government appears to have done little preparation to battle the flu.

Regardless, Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and all candidates in the election have seized on the H1N1 virus. Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych criticized the government for its lack of preparedness, Yushchenko suggested that public officials should be held criminally responsible for not stopping the flu’s spread, and Tymoshenko has used the epidemic to cancel all election gatherings for three weeks.

All three candidates also have set the foundation for future use of the flu if necessary. Could Yushchenko hope to create enough panic to find support for a state of emergency, thus cancelling the election? Could Tymoshenko use the epidemic both to limit her opponents’ campaigning and to consolidate control over power entities? Could Yanukovych lead a revolt against both leaders?

It’s going to be a very long election season.