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English \ Ukraine and the World \ Will swine flu spare Ukraine? Not likely, experts say
1 October, 2009

|Kateryna Grushenko, Kyiv Post

A woman wears a face mask, as a precaution against swine flu


Ukraine has only had two confirmed cases of swine flu so far, but experts warn that flu cannot be stopped by national borders.

The H1N1 virus epidemic spreading across the globe. Having claimed more than 4, 200 lives already, the virus may be on its way to Ukraine. While Western experts say that Ukraine will be affected sooner or later, Ukrainian medical experts still hope the nation will be spared.

Health officials around the world are preparing responses to H1N1 virus, more commonly known as swine flu. The next wave of the virus is expected as soon as October, worsening through December and January. The virus might affect as much as 30 percent of the world's population, whereas the common flu affects less than 10 percent.

The H1N1 virus, traced to Mexico, has breached European borders and reached pandemic level worldwide. Ukraine, so far, has been affected very little. Many also fear that Ukraine's ailing healthcare system has simply failed to detect many cases.

"It's not about if, it's about when H1N1 comes to Ukraine," said Daniel Hryhorczuk, professor of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences and Epidemiology at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago. "The virus is spreading in every other country in the world and just through air travel Ukraine will receive it," he added.

Ukraine hasn't gone entirely unscathed. Officials on Sept. 29 confirmed that a second individual hospitalized that month had contracted it.

The first case of H1N1 came in early June. The victim was a 24-year-old man who returned to Ukraine after two years in Detroit. He started feeling sick on his way home from the airport, went to the hospital and was preliminary diagnosed with H1NI. He was transferred to Kyiv Infectious Diseases Hospital No. 9, where he tested positive with H1N1. The diagnosis was later confirmed by a laboratory in London. The patient quickly recovered.

No more cases have been registered, although medical experts say probably more cases exist. Belarus has six cases. Russia registered 457 and Poland 165. But the numbers have been rising in recent weeks. In September, Russia recorded its first known death from the H1N1 flu.

Many Western countries stopped counting the cases because most people sick with flu-like symptoms were found to have contracted the H1N1 virus, which reached pandemic status quickly.

The hopes for a long-promised vaccine have dimmed as the World Health Organization released a statement that current supplies of a vaccine are "inadequate for a world population in which virtually everyone is susceptible to infection."

Although Ukrainians are unhappy with visa restrictions and an economic crisis that have curtailed their travels abroad, staying home has turned out to be a benefit in avoiding this infectious virus.

"The reason why Ukraine has a lesser amount of cases is probably the smaller quantity of people travelling to the countries where H1N1 spiked," said Philippe Guibert, medical director of health programs for International SOS. "When it comes to H1N1 epidemic, there is no geographic difference; just some Western health care systems are more prepared to handle the epidemics."

Ukrainian First Deputy Health Minister Oleksander Bilovol is confident that his country is ready to combat H1N1. "We have 200,000 extra beds across Ukraine in storage to supply the infectious diseases hospitals if we see an inflow of patients. We also have some 60,247 packs of Tamiflu, the most effective viral medication recommended by the WHO, in stash and we are planning on acquiring 45,000 more packs," he said.

Ukraine has set up a laboratory that can test for H1N1 virus and more test kits are planned to be purchased. Ukraine's strategy is to contain the H1N1 virus and impede its spread among the population by surveillance in the airports and train stations.

According to Victor Marievsky, director of the state Gromashevsky Epidemic and Infectious Diseases University, the government's doctors receive a list of people who have recently come back from the countries where the cases of H1N1 flu were registered. The doctors are instructed to keep an eye on the potential patients.

"Any person who tests positive for H1N1 will be isolated, treated and not allowed to travel within and out of the country," Marievsky said.

The H1N1 virus is not usually deadly, but spreads quicker than usual flu because it's a new virus against which people have not built immunity. According to the WHO, 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.

In the United States, where the number of cases has topped one million, surveillance of international travelers has been dropped as a strategy. Education of the population on how to avoid catching the virus and avoid spreading it has accelerated.

"Because influenza is so [easily] transmittable, it's an uphill climb to prevent its spread through standard methodology," said Boris Lushniak, an assistant surgeon general at the US Food and Drug Administration, who came to Ukraine in September for an H1N1 conference. "For Ukraine, it's very important to make sure that they are finding the real number of the cases and identify the point when the strategy for combating the virus should be changed."

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