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Ukraine: Internet Offers Swine Flu Common Sense

Since last week, all of Ukraine has been in a state of panic. The flu kills. The epidemic, started in the western part of the country, took the lives of about 100 people.

Initially, health care officials denied the fact that people were dying because of swine flu, saying that the deaths had been caused by an unknown infection, which led to pneumonia. But the thought of an “unknown infection” scared the public even more. Later on, officials admitted that there was an H1N1 epidemic starting in Ukraine. The result? People rushed to drug stores and soon after pharmacies were out of stock of face masks, vitamins and immunity-boosting supplements.

swine-flu

Inconsistency in health officials’ reports, plus a lack of information, created many rumors and much gossip. And Ukrainian politicians saw the epidemic as another opportunity to appear on TV and boost their image. Major TV channels ran 5-hour talk shows focused on the flu that were filled with politicians, many of which featured not a single person with a medical education.

In this environment of “collective madness,” the Internet has served as a medium for unbiased information about the epidemic, as well as professional advice on what to do and how to protect yourself and your family from the virus.

A balanced professional analysis of the flu epidemic by Dr Komarovskyy, a well-known pediatrician with more than 30 years of professional experience, was posted on his personal Web blog. This was perhaps something people were waiting for, as the post was widely sent around and has appeared on popular forums and social networks. It was also republished by major Ukrainian Internet media such as Ukrayinska Pravda. In a few days, the post got about 900 comments from readers.

At the beginning of the post, Dr Komarovskyy explains what forced him to turn to the Internet to tell the truth about the flu. He says:

I had planned to write about the flu in a few days, after I'd received adequate and objective information. But then, I received a phone call from my fellow nurse…Her boss had ordered her to bring three face masks the next day. When she asked where she could find the masks [drug stores were out of stock], the boss gave a response that reflects the Ukrainian reality “The night is long, so you can sew them.” This was the last straw for me, I realized that I cannot stay silent anymore, I need to talk.

In fact, on Friday and Saturday the only thing I did was talk. My cell phone registered about 850 phone calls on these days. I responded to questions, calmed people down, explained things…I understood that if my friends and patients (people with theoretical and practical knowledge in the treatment of viruses) were in panic, the general situation was a total disaster.

On Friday I talked to one of the managers of a TV channel from Kharkiv. I found out that there was not a single chance to talk to the people of the city. All the air time was filled with politicians. At night there was a Savik Shuster political talk-show focused on the flu epidemic. Perhaps, for me it was one of the biggest shocks of the last few years. I do not remember myself being so much ashamed of my country…On Saturday, naïve me called Kiev. I said that I am ready to come, that I am ashamed, that we need to calm people down, that what is going on is a national shame… People tried to help but were not able to. For me it is clear. The flu and elections are not compatible, like the flu and Aspirin – it might cause many side effects.

A significant part of Dr. Komarovskyy's post was devoted to medical aspects of the flu. He professionally summarized facts about the ways it is transmitted, its symptoms and treatment. With a good sense of humor he went through the common misconceptions about treatment of the flu. In addition, Dr. Komarovskyy gave tips on how to prevent the flu.

In the next part of the post Dr. Komarovskyy shared his opinion concerning the hysteria surrounding the flu, the irresponsible appeals of politicians and the errors of public health officials. He pointed out:

During the first two days of the hysteria, the main advisers and teachers for the nation were politicians – parliament members, ministers, former ministers, etc. When a doctor appeared on TV, it just so happened that the politicians could talk better…The highest point of the panic was after a claim by a presidential candidate (!) that the deaths of Ukrainians were being caused not by a flu, but by a pneumonia-inducing plague. I want to highlight, this was not said by an old lady selling sunflower seeds at the market, but by a presidential candidate of a European country.

Another presidential candidate complained that drug stores did not have enough Oxolin ointment in stock [which in Ukraine is believed to be effective in prevention of the flu] and blamed this on “criminal pharmacists.” For some reason, nobody was able to explain to the candidate that the effectiveness of this ointment is not clinically proven and has never been used in the USA or France or any other country.

OK, there are no doctors among the presidential candidates and perhaps they cannot afford a public health adviser. But a few of our politicians have a medical degree! One of them mixed up Theraflu with Tamiflu [the only medication proven to be effective against H1N1]. The other one did not see any difference between regular and viral pneumonia…But when I heard a doctor – a Parliament member and a secretary of the Parliament's Public Health Committee – say that Tamiflu is just an immunity booster and that at a meeting of National Security Council they decided to purchase Oseltamyvir instead I became really scared and ashamed. When major public health decisions in this country are being made by people who do not know that Tamiflu and Oseltamyvir are two names for one medication – what can we expect? …Thus, we should not be surprised by the fact that the government is purchasing medication that are not used anywhere in the world.

My advice to the government: Ask WHO [World Health Organization] experts to provide you with a list of required medications.

Dr Komarovskyy finished his post with a general assessment of the flu situation in Ukraine:

If we double the number of people sick with the swine flu (since no more than half the people with the flu go to a doctor) and compare it with other death rates, we will see that the death rate is even lower than with the regular flu. Pneumonia is the most common cause of death in every country at any time. Pneumonia often accompanies many other diseases and traumas. If each case of pneumonia was reported by the media, nothing good will happen.

We are unlucky to have these together: the [economic] crisis, the elections, the fall season and the flu. But we know for sure that sniffing, coughing and a high body temperature is influenza [the flu], a common disease that is relatively easy to treat. It requires self control and certain actions, which everybody can afford.

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