Swine flu fears on rise after numerous deaths
Today at 22:27 | Peter Byrne
Health Ministry is trying to identify the deadly virus that has killed at least 30 people in western Ukraine so far.
An unknown virus is afflicting thousands in western Ukraine, according to health authorities who say at least 30 people have died this month alone from the mysterious ailment. The death toll is expected to grow higher soon.
As of Oct. 29, Ukraine’s Health Ministry had not yet determined whether the recent deaths are related to the global outbreak of the H1N1 "swine flu" virus, but they admitted to sending more than 1,200 doses of Tamiflu, the antiviral drug used to treat H1N1, to western Ukraine.
Thus far, there have been only two confirmed cases of swine flu in Ukraine, according to health officials, who have expressed confidence that the country is ready to combat the virus should an outbreak occur. But fears about the possible onset of a swine flu pandemic in Ukraine increased on Oct. 27 after media reported that a man from Zakarpattya Oblast had died of swine flu complications. The diagnosis has not been confirmed.
“Ukraine’s Health Ministry has convened an emergency team to identify the virus and identify measures to prevent it from spreading,” Health Minister Vasyl Knyazevych said on Oct. 29 during a cabinet meeting.
“Specialists on the team are working around the clock and we are confident that we will be able to identify the cause [of the deaths] on Monday or Tuesday next week and announce preventative measures,” Knyazevych said.
“Some 10 people have perished in Ternopil Oblast, and several in the Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts,” Deputy Health Minister Oleksandr Bilovol said a day earlier during a press conference in Kyiv. He added that all victims were less than 45 years of age.
“The individuals died of viral pneumonia, the cause of which we have not yet determined,” said Bilovol, adding that health officials are awaiting the results of laboratory tests. “According to our data, the number of deaths due to viral pneumonia is a little higher than last year.”
More than 6,000 people in Ukraine died of pneumonia in 2008, according to Health Ministry statistics, with 400 fatalities registered in the Ternopil, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts.
Bilovol said during the press conference that 34 individuals of the 160 patients currently afflicted are in critical condition. He said that most of the people who died waited too long — one week — before seeking medical assistance.
Health officials say they will need several days to determine whether the cases are, indeed, swine flu. In neighboring Russia, meanwhile, the H1N1 virus is definitely making the rounds. Since June, about 1,300 cases of H1N1 have been registered in Russia by health officials, who have urged people not to panic.
“Two women are believed to have died of the influenza A/H1N1 virus,” a spokesman for eastern Siberia’s Chita region said on Oct. 27, adding that official confirmation of the causes of death would only be available in 21 days.
As of Oct. 29, the number of patients in the region diagnosed with swine flu grew to 251, according to Natalya Zhdanova, deputy governor of Chita region. She said seven patients were in critical conditions.
Ukraine has set up a laboratory that can test for the H1N1 virus and more test kits are planned to be purchased. Ukraine’s strategy has been to contain the H1N1 virus and impede its spread among the population by surveillance in airports and train stations.
The H1N1 virus is not usually deadly, but spreads more quickly than usual flu because it’s a new virus against which people have not yet built immunity.
According to the World Health Organization, 2 percent of patients sick with H1N1 come to hospitals with complications. People with lung and heart conditions, diabetes, obesity, pregnant women, elderly and very young children are in the high-risk groups.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Oct. 25 declared a national emergency as the estimated number of swine flu cases topped one million. During a visit to Ukraine weeks ago, U.S. health officials urged their Ukrainian counterparts to boost preparations for combating a possible H1N1 epidemic, warning that it’s only a matter of time before the country would be hit. Experts have also expressed concern about the ability of Ukraine’s dilapidated and under-financed health system to contain a serious outbreak.