Ukraine is in a state of hysteria as a mystery flu epidemic grips the country in the run-up to presidential elections. Schools have been closed and there is a ban on public gatherings.
The country ordered 650,000 doses of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu and hundreds of thousands more doses are already on their way. Millions of face masks are also being produced.
More than 100 people have died of flu-related symptoms since late October, 14 from the particularly virulent H1N1 swine flu strain, said Oleskander Vilovol, a Health Ministry spokesman, according to Ukrainian TV.
Over three quarters of a million people are registered as suffering from the flu. That's one-and-a-half percent of the population.
The mystery of the unidentified flu virus in Ukraine, first reported by RNW on 29 October, has deepened. The websites of various conspiracy theorists are now even discussing the possibility that biological warfare experiments are the cause.
Rumours no surprise
Given that the Ukraine is still dealing with the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, it’s unsurprising that such rumours have arisen. But are they just rumours, or is there some substance to the claims?
In August 2009, a man called Joseph Mosse, who claims to be a former microbiologist with the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, was arrested in Los Angeles, after having made threats against the White House.
Shortly after his arrest there were reports that he had called into a radio show with a warning about a biological weapon being prepared in the Ukraine by a company called Baxter International. According to these reports, Mr Mosse said that the weapon would be spread via a flu vaccine.
Facts vs theories
Credence is being given to these reports because Mr Mosse’s qualifications as a microbiologist are confirmed by his research profile on this website. There is also a story doing the rounds that a light aircraft has been spotted spraying an unidentified substance over the capital, Kiev, but this has been denied by the country’s Office of Emergency Reponse.
However, this is only one of the current theories. Some political analysts believe that talk of a pandemic is hype generated by opposition politicians in the run-up to elections in January, and the Ukrainian government is playing down the claims. The government’s stance is supported by the World Health Organisation, which has sent a team to the Ukraine, and reports no evidence of a severe outbreak of flu, beyond the normal level for this time of the year.
Waiting for the outcome
The Ukrainian Health Minister Vasyl Kniazevych told the national radio station that he believes the as-yet unidentified virus could be one that has already been discovered and is known as California A/H1N1 flu. This is thought to be a more virulent strain of the H1N1 virus. The minister says that efforts to identify the mystery virus are expected to take several weeks. The various competing theories will no doubt continue to circulate as Ukraine and the rest of the world await the findings.