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Afghanistan's only pig quarantined? Must be bad

Swine flu has sent one of the world's most unflappable populations into a panic.

Two zookeepers watch as Afghanistan's only known pig, Khanzir, eats at the Kabul Zoo Nov. 2, 2009. The pig, a curiosity in Muslim Afghanistan where pork and pig products are illegal because they are considered irreligious, was quarantined in July because visitors to the zoo were worried it could spread the H1N1 flu strain. (Oleg Popov/Reuters)

KABUL, Afghanistan — By Afghan standards, it's a panic of apocalyptic proportions: A state of emergency has been declared; parents are scaring their children into wearing masks on fear of death and the country’s only pig, in the Kabul zoo, has been in quarantine for months.

This in a country whose people laugh in the face of earthquakes, shrug off suicide bombers and deal daily with war and insurgency. It seems Afghans have been awfully quick to panic at the onset of swine flu.

Ever since Minister of Public Health Mohammad Amin Fatemi declared a state of emergency on Nov. 1, green surgical masks have become a common sight on the streets of all major cities, and those who cannot afford even a few pennies for the paper swath are covering their faces in scarves or handkerchiefs.

“I have sold 2,500 masks in just two days,” said Bismillah, owner of the Rafhat Pharmacy in Herat city. “I usually sell just five or ten. I have raised the price, too — I used to sell them for 5 afghani (10 cents), now I can get 10 (20 cents).”

Small wonder: Fatemi said that as many as 70,000 people could die of the disease — a monstrous figure in a country of 30 million people.

Schools, universities, sports clubs and wedding halls are to be closed for a three-week period, leaving students, body-builders and lovers out of luck.

“I was invited to a wedding last night, but when I got there the place was closed,” grumbled one Kabul resident.

The statistics do not seem to warrant the extreme measures that are being taken, according to health care professionals in Afghanistan. So far 11 people are reported to have died of the H1N1 virus. There are also, according to Fatemi, close to 800 cases of swine flu infection — over half of them in the military.

But in a country where little accurate health information is available to the general public, and where the public health system is underdeveloped and unavailable to many citizens, the news has spread genuine alarm through the population.

“My parents told me if I did not wear a mask I would die,” said 7-year-old Idris, whose entire small face was enveloped in green.

In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, over 3,000 people came to the Department of Public Health in just two days to be tested for the virus. So far doctors have seen no one with any signs or symptoms, not just in Mazar-e-Sharif but anywhere in the north.

This was no consolation to Ahmad Jawad, a pharmacist in Mazar-e-Sharif, who complained that he was more vulnerable because the people coming to his shop were all sick. Speaking through a mask, he said, “I don’t work much these days. I spend most of my time at home, for preventative purposes.”