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Russia Struggles to Battle Bird Flu


Russian officials are trying to step measures to prevent the spread of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, with the start of Spring bird migrations just days away. But a leading Russian scientist warns that the country has no stockpile of anti-viral drugs.

Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry says nearly one million birds have been culled during the past month in southern Russia, the area of the country hardest hit by the deadly strain of the bird flu virus.

Local states of emergency and quarantines are in effect across a 500,000-square-kilometer area. But suspected bird flu cases continue to be reported in Russia, as well as in Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a government crisis task force to deal with the virus, which first appeared in the country last July, in Siberia. Russian officials fear the H5N1 virus could spread with the start of annual bird migrations in mid-March.

Russia has had no human cases of bird flu, but concerns are growing, because the virus has spread from wild fowl into the general poultry population.

Earlier this week, the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations staged anti-bird flu drills. The exercises focused on preventative measures to reduce instances of infection, and on the readiness of the state system in the event of an emergency.

But the director of Russia's Virology Research Institute, Dmitry Lvov, is not satisfied with the government response. Lvov told reporters, the country has not taken sufficient steps.

At present, Russia has no vaccine to protect against bird flu in humans, but Lvov says people will need to be saved, if a human pandemic breaks out. He says that will be near impossible to do, without a stockpile of anti-viral drugs.

He notes Remantadin and Arbidol are two anti-virals found to be effective in fighting bird flu, but again stresses that they are in short supply, as they are not being produced in Russia.

There are also questions about a uniform public information campaign on the part of the Russian government. Among a small sample of people VOA spoke with in Moscow, few had a firm grasp of the facts about bird flu.

Elderly villager Raisa Grigorievna keeps chickens at her home outside Moscow. She admits she does not know the symptoms of bird flu. She says most of what she has heard is second-hand information from other villagers. Perhaps, more educated people know more, she adds.

It is a far different story in Estonia, where government officials have promised to mount a massive internet information campaign for the general public, if a bird flu pandemic breaks out in the Baltics.

Health experts fear the virus could mutate into a human-to-human form, capable of killing millions worldwide. The World Health Organization says of the 173 confirmed human cases of bird flu since 2003, 93 have died.

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