MOSCOW, Russia — Across Russia, health officials are shutting schools, quarantining people and forbidding children from taking vacations abroad, all in the name of the fight against swine flu.
The country’s chief doctor, Gennady Onishchenko, insists that just 709 cases of the H1N1 virus have been registered, with 539 of those occurring in people who were infected while abroad. No one has died from the disease, he says.
But others present a much different version of reality.
In late September, Dmitry Lvov, the head of Russia’s State Virology Institute and one of the country’s top health specialists, said that tens of thousands of Russians had been infected with swine flu.
In an interview with state-run television, Lvov also said the country had seen its first death from swine flu in late August, in a nurse who had returned from a trip to Bulgaria and failed to seek medical attention quickly.
Within hours of the report, the Health Ministry jumped in and said the woman had not died of swine flu. Marina Mikheyeva had died of pneumonia, the ministry claimed, taking the rare move to publish its diagnosis and a full rundown of her health history on its official website.
In subsequent interviews, relatives of the woman described a frantic situation as her health deteriorated.
“We went to three hospitals and no one accepted us. We said she flew in from Bulgaria and might have swine flu. Right away, they said no,” Mikheyeva’s husband said in an interview carried on Interfax news agency. He said the family had yet to receive an official reason for her death.
Lvov continued to insist the woman had died of swine flu. Onishchenko likened the outburst to “an informational terrorist act.”
“Onishchenko is referring to the number of cases confirmed in a laboratory,” said Sergei Yerenin, at Russia’s office of the WHO. “Of course there are more cases than those confirmed in a lab.”
Upon hearing the interview with Lvov, the WHO included Russia on its list of counties affected by swine flu deaths. The Health Ministry subsequently protested the move and Russia was taken off the list.
Russia insists it is prepared for a potential epidemic. Last week, Deputy Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said the ministry had conducted clinical trials of two vaccines and had begun mass production. She said 35.5 million doses were to be produced by the end of the year.
Schools in the northern city of Murmansk and the Siberian city of Chita have been shuttered. Cases have been registered in the Kirov region, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, and Moscow region.
For now, the government appears to be focusing on the assumption that Russians are being infected from abroad. All arriving international flights are boarded by a specialist who checks passengers for infection.
For months, Onishchenko has been encouraging parents to keep their children from going abroad. “If they avoid (trips abroad), they are doing the right thing,” he said Tuesday, Interfax reported. “We’re not saying that individual trips are forbidden. If a child goes with his mother, go right ahead. What worries us are group trips, if kids will live in some dormitory and go to one cafeteria,” he said.
Irina Tyurina, press secretary for the Russian Union of Tourism Workers, said 40 to 50 percent of school trips for autumn had been cancelled.
The strangest approach to swine flu here, however, came earlier this year, when Onishchenko banned pork imports from Mexico and a host of U.S. states. The H1N1 virus cannot be transferred through food. But this is a country where many people think it is the cold draught from a window that poses the greatest risk to health.