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Swine flu panic — and politics — hit Ukraine

The H1N1 outbreak has led Ukrainian officials to accuse each other of inappropriate responses.

Activists of Ukrainian female rights organization FEMEN stage a protest in central Kiev, Nov. 9, 2009. The activists protested against politicians overestimating the scale of the H1N1 flu and wanted to raise the spirits of the people. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — It was perhaps inevitable, given Ukraine’s hyper-politicized climate — heightened by a partisan, mudslinging presidential race — that the H1N1 pandemic would become the biggest political football of all.

Ukraine is gripped by a swine flu panic, as an outbreak of acute respiratory illness has swept the country. So far, more than 750,000 people have been infected, and on Friday, 109 were said to have died. Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) say that they believe the majority of cases to be H1N1.

“There is no question that this is a rapidly involving illness,” said Jukka Pukkila, team leader for the WHO international expert team that arrived this week in Ukraine at the government’s request.

“We have all reason to believe that this is a spreading of the H1N1 illness,” he continued, adding that laboratories in the United Kingdom and Ukraine confirmed the presence of the disease.

The Ukrainian government has undertaken some of the most extreme steps in Europe to contain the contagion. Last week, officials closed schools and universities for three weeks, and banned large political demonstrations. (Elsewhere last week, others from high-risk groups lined up around city blocks in Canada to receive swine flu vaccinations, only to be boxed out by members from two professional hockey teams who received preferential treatment.)

In the capital Kiev, where only two have died so far, many wear face masks and restaurants and cafes have seen a dip in business. But movie theaters and swimming pools remain open, and while many individuals are concerned, panic has not erupted.

The situation is much worse in the country’s west, especially in Lviv near the Polish border, where the outbreak is centered. There, some 45 people have died so far and officials have urged cinemas, restaurants and other public institutions to close for the near future.

No sooner had the government announced its containment measures, however, than the pandemic became a way for the country’s politicians to beat each other up or score points.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is running second at this point in the Jan. 17 presidential elections, made a public show of meeting — in a surgical mask — deliveries of the anti-flu medication Tamiflu at the Kiev and Lviv airports.

Others called this show-boating. “Ukrainian authorities are using the hysteria over the flu outbreak to distract citizens’ attention from the country’s economic and social problems,” said presidential candidate Sergey Tigipko, a former member of Tymoshenko’s team who is now running against her. “Flu is a serious threat, but in Ukraine they have contrived to turn it into a political tool used to distract public attention from real problems.”