sábado, março 18, 2006

Birds and Fear

As Spring Thaws the Caucasus, Birds and Fear Are Flying North Through Georgia
In the early morning hours, the cobblestone alleys that wander this city's slopes are normally crowded with schoolchildren, walking in groups with their backpacks and books. But such sights have lately become rare.

Nino Gogsadze, director of School No. 50 in Tbilisi , speaks to a parent wanting to know if her school is open. Because of fears of avian flu, the only pupils who showed up Thursday were her sons, David and Levan.
At School No. 50 on Thursday, the director, Nino Gogsadze, stood in the corridors for the 9 a.m. opening. Only two students were waiting for the day's lessons. Both were her sons.
The school's 822 other children were absent.
"The parents do not let their children go to school," Ms. Gogsadze said. "They are afraid."
Such is the power that avian influenza can hold over the public imagination as the March thaw advances north across the former Soviet Union.
Two girls from School No. 50 died this month of complications related to a strain of common influenza. The deaths were not caused by avian influenza, according to the Georgian government and the World Health Organization, which has reviewed the laboratory results of biological samples taken from the girls.
But clinical facts have hardly mattered, and Tbilisi has succumbed to an outbreak — not of avian influenza, but of fear.
School attendance has dipped to half of normal levels, said Alexander Lomaia, the minister of education. Ambulance calls have soared, reaching 900 a day here, up from slightly more than 600, said Lado Chipashvili, the minister of labor, health and social affairs.
The fear has undermined confidence in the food supply, reducing poultry sales and making it hard to find dishes containing chicken or eggs in restaurants.
Even Mr. Chipashvili has had trouble ordering shkmeruli, the sautéed chicken in garlic-and-cream sauce that is part of Georgia's national cuisine. "Unfortunately, it is impossible," he said.
Only one bird has been identified in Georgia with the avian influenza virus — a wild swan found dead near the coast of the Black Sea on Feb. 23. Domestic birds within a radius of about two miles of the dead swan were promptly culled, about 1,700 birds in all, according to Levan Ramishvili, the coordinator of avian influenza programs at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Georgia has had no human cases of avian influenza, and the World Health Organization said Georgia had monitored bird populations, improved its health system's ability to treat human cases, and educated its public about the virus and how it its transmitted.
"I have the impression that they are doing quite well," said Dr. Bernardus Ganter, the adviser on communicable diseases for the World Health Organization's European region, which includes Georgia. "They are serious about this."
The public reaction, however, has tapped a combination of fears. Georgia borders Turkey and Azerbaijan, which between them have had seven confirmed human deaths from avian influenza this winter.
And as residents of a post-Soviet state, Georgians retain an ingrained distrust of government announcements, even though the current government, which came to power in 2003, has proved much more open than the old.
The sense that official assurances should be treated with skepticism was deepened by the handling of three deaths in recent weeks in Azerbaijan, where government officials alternately said the victims had died from avian influenza and that such diagnoses were "premature."
The World Health Organization, working with Azerbaijani officials, on Tuesday confirmed that the deaths were caused by avian influenza, which is not contagious among humans but can be contracted by people who come in contact with the blood or feces of poultry.
Georgian officials have embarked anew on a public relations campaign, which has already included public service announcements about the disease on television, and pamphlets for schoolchildren and medical workers. "It is like a panic and we are trying to calm this panic down," Mr. Chipashvili said.
He noted, however, that the spring bird migration is under way, and that as more birds pass through the region, the virus could readily spread to wild and domestic birds.
That has been the case on the other side of the Caucasus ridge, in southwestern Russia, where more than a million birds have been killed by the virus or by the culling of domestic stocks.
As the concerns multiply, Dr. Ganter says the World Health Organization has increased its presence and diagnostic capacity in Azerbaijan, and is getting cooperation from the government there.
If School No. 50 is any indicator, however, restoring public confidence in the Caucasus will be slow. Ms. Gogsadze has invited citizens to examine medical certificates showing that the girls who died did not have avian influenza. The school has been disinfected from end to end. "Every room, every corner, every toilet," Mr. Chipashvili said.
Yet the building stands empty.
"Epidemiologists told me that this school is the cleanest in Georgia," Ms. Gogsadze said. "But fear has emerged."
NY Times, C. J. CHIVERS March 18, 2006