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Alarm over bird flu overtakes Georgians

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  • Alarm over bird flu overtakes Georgians

    Alarm over bird flu overtakes Georgians

    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.

    At School No. 50 on Thursday, the school's 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 had stayed home, except for a group that approached the school but turned away at the entrance. "The parents do not let their children go to school," Gogsadze said. "They are afraid."
    Such is the power that avian influenza can hold over the public imagination as the March thaw advances northward 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 both the Georgian government and the World Health Organization, which has reviewed the laboratory results of biological samples taken from the two girls.

    But clinical facts have hardly mattered and Tbilisi has succumbed to an outbreak not of bird flu, but of fear. Attendance has plummeted at schools, dipping to half of normal levels, said Alexander Lamaia, the minister of education. Ambulance calls have soared, reaching 900 a day here, up from slightly more than 600, according to Lado Chipashvili, the minister of labor, health and social affairs.

    The fear has undermined confidence about the food supply, reducing poultry sales and making it hard to find dishes containing chicken or eggs in Tbilisi's restaurants. Even Chipashvili has trouble ordering shkmeruli, the sautéed chicken in garlic-and-cream sauce that is part of Georgia's characteristic national cuisine. "Unfortunately, it is impossible," he said.

    The oddity of the widespread public alarm is that thus far there has been only a sole bird identified in Georgia with the bird flu virus - a wild swan found dead near the Black Sea coast on Feb. 23.

    Domestic birds within three kilometers, or 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 bird flu, and the World Health Organization says Georgian ministries have monitored bird populations, improved its health system's ability to respond to treat any human cases and educated its public about the virus and how it is transmitted.
    "I have the impression that they are doing quite well," said Bernardus Ganter, the adviser for 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 both Turkey and Azerbaijan, two nations that between them have had seven confirmed human deaths from avian influenza this winter.

    And as a post-Soviet state, much of its population retains an ingrained distrust for government announcements, even though its current government, which came to power in 2003, has proved much more transparent 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 died from avian influenza and that such diagnoses were "premature."
    The World Health Organization, working with Azeri officials, on Tuesday confirmed that the deaths in Azerbaijan were caused by bird flu, ending the conflicting statements, but not before people in the region had cause to wonder whether a government's initial announcements could be regarded as true.

    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," Chipashvili said.

    He noted, however, that the spring bird migration was under way, and that as more birds pass through the region, the virus could readily spread to wild and domestic birds.

    Israeli imports to EU banned
    The European Commission on Friday banned poultry imports from Israel into the European Union after confirmation of the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu in the country, Agence France-Presse reported in Brussels.

    The decision covers imports of live poultry, poultry meat, eggs and poultry products, although heat-treated poultry products from Israel will still be allowed to be imported, said a commission statement.

    All meat and meat products from poultry slaughtered before Feb. 15, considered to be outside the incubation period of the virus, will also be exempt, it added.

    The decision came after the Israeli authorities confirmed that the H5N1 strain had been found in thousands of poultry, as five people were admitted to the hospital and the authorities moved to cull multiple flocks of fowl.