Ukraine takes drastic measures against swine flu

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Ukraine's government is responding aggressively to swine flu. But as Brigid McCarthy reports from Kiev, its aggressive stance may be more about politics than prevention.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. The World Health Organization today gave a mixed assessment of where things stand with the global swine flu pandemic. On the positive side, agency officials said there's no evidence that the virus has mutated. That means the H1N1 vaccines slowly making their way to the public should confer good protection. On the negative side, the virus is spreading quickly in the northern hemisphere and that spread could accelerate as winter approaches. WHO flu expert, Keiji Fukuda.

KEIJI FUKUDA: We remain quite concerned about the patterns that we are seeing, particularly again because a sizeable number of people do develop serious complications and death.

WERMAN: Nations continue to take new measures to deal with the pandemic. Today, Norway made the flu medicines, Tamiflu and Relenza available without a prescription. Russia has ordered its border guards to wear face masks and rubber gloves. In a few minutes, we'll hear how Venezuela is trying to protect a remote Amazonian tribe, but first we go to Ukraine. The Eastern European country has responded aggressively to swine flu but as Brigid McCarthy reports, that response may say more about Ukraine's politics and culture than about the nature of the epidemic there.

BRIGID MCCARTHY: The government of Ukraine has imposed some of the Draconian measures of any country in response to the swine flu. Prime Minster Yulia Tymoshenko has closed all schools for three weeks and banned public gatherings. This after the country's health minister announced an unusual spike in acute respiratory illnesses in Western Ukraine. People across the country have emptied pharmacies of pills, vitamins and surgical masks. When the country ran out of masks, Prime Minister Tymoshenko urged people to make their own out of gauze bandages. Ukranians have also been stocking up on garlic and vodka. Sergei Lyemets, a reporter for Ukrainska Pravda, says people are panicking.

SERGEI LYEMETS: Fear, fear, fear.

MCCARTHY: And their fear is being stoked by saturation media coverage.

LYEMETS: From the TV, from newspapers, from internet.

MCCARTHY: Especially the internet. Rumors have been spreading faster than the virus. Some bloggers worn people to keep their windows shut because government helicopters were spraying disinfectants. Others warned that this was in fact something even more terrifying and lethal, pneumonic plague. In fact, the World Health Organization said there's no evidence Ukraine's swine flu outbreak is especially severe so why the extreme response? Prime Minster Tymoshenko launched her presidential campaign less than two weeks ago. Reporter Sergei Lyemets says swine flu gave her the perfect opportunity to look decisive. He says it's unfortunate but if he were in her position, he too, would make every effort to portray the flu outbreak as especially dangerous.

LYEMETS: So I could tell that I was the person who took the challenge of this horrible disease and I was the one who won the disease, won the fight.

MCCARTHY: Even so, you might think working parents would be up in arms after the Prime Minister cancelled all schools for three weeks but not in Ukraine. Khrystyna Pavaroznyk is a teacher at public school 92 in downtown Kiev.

KHRYSTYNA PAVAROZYNK: We have no problems with it because the flu is very dangerous.

MCCARTHY: And because closing schools is nothing new for Ukraine. Almost every year government officials close schools for a week or two when there's an outbreak of flu or other contagious diseases but three teenage girls wandering around Kiev's mostly empty Dream Town Shopping Mall said they've never had school cancelled for three weeks.

SPEAKER: [RUSSIAN] they say they're kind of afraid because you know, they think it's a serious illness if they do catch it. But so far, they don't know anyone in their class or in their school who has been sick.

MCCARTHY: Two teenage boys walked by. One of them was clutching his three year old sister's hand and looking morose.

SPEAKER: [RUSSIAN] he said he'd rather be in school than have to babysit his little sister for three weeks.

MCCARTHY: This boy wasn't worried about the swine flu. Neither was a college student killing time at the mall. She was furious that her university was closed and blamed it on politics.

SPEAKER: [RUSSIAN] because in Russia, even though there are more cases, confirmed cases of swine flu, nobody's closing down schools everywhere because they don't have an election coming up.

MCCARTHY: Ukrainska Pravda reporter Sergei Lyemets says shutting down schools and offices is a sure fire way for politicians to win voters' hearts. He says half the population works for the government and Ukranians are, in their soul, still more Soviet than European.

LYEMETS: They have a deep, deep memory from the times of USSR. People here like not to work.

MCCARTHY: But they love their soccer, which is probably why the government's ban on all public gatherings didn't extent to last night's European champion's league showdown between Kiev's top professional team and a team from Milan. Swine flu or no swine flu epidemic. By the way, Milan won. For The World, I'm Brigid McCarthy in Kiev.