Russian Government Goes Mum On
Mystery Disease Outbreak
By Katya Cengel
PERVOMAYSK, Ukraine ( - News coverage of a mysterious skin ailment that sickened hundreds of people in Mykolayiv region has slowed to a trickle despite the fact that its cause - and long term effects - remain unknown.
The rapid spread of the illness led late last month to mass evacuations of children from five villages, requests for international aid and top stories in the nation's media for a week running.
But now parents and hospital workers in the villages that have been inundated with sufferers of the strange illness are wondering if their towns are being plagued by another threat: a government eager to allow the mystery to fade away.
By late last month 410 people, mostly children, in five villages in the Pervomaysk district of southern Ukraine were diagnosed with the ailment that doctors termed toxidermatosis. The sickness, which is characterized by a rash, fever, enlarged liver and pancreas and high levels of hemoglobin in the blood, was originally believed to have been caused by fuel leaking from Soviet-era missiles buried in the area.
On Aug. 31 the government declared all five villages - Boleslavchik, Michurino, Pidgirye, Chausovo-1 and Chausovo-2 - ecological disaster zones and announced it would seek international aid.
But on the following day, Mykolayiv regional authorities issued a statement saying that the health risk danger was over and that all water in the area was safe to drink.
Despite the proclamation, Mykola Mohilevets, the region's emergency situations deputy, said the cause of the outbreak was likely caused by something in the air or water - possibly rocket fuel.
As a precaution, hundreds of children from the afflicted villages had been evacuated because he said it was dangerous for them to stay in the area. Still he reiterated that the health risk had passed and only two children were currently ill in the stricken area.
Apparently, he hadn't spent much time in the children's ward at Pervomaysk hospital. In the hallway outside the pediatric ward mothers updated each other on the latest news while they waited for their children to be examined. Alyosha, 22 months, was diagnosed with toxidermatosis in late August. He has large red dots that resemble chicken pox covering his body.
"He has been anemic since birth," explained his mother, Nadya Petrenko. "We used to celebrate if his hemoglobin was 106, but for the past 10 days it has been 140."
Petrenko is from Chausovo-2. Ilona Koval, who is at the hospital with her two children, is also from Chausovo-2. Koval's son has red bumps all over his body and her daughter has them on her genital area.
Anya Lubovcka, 7, from the neighboring village of Kamyana Balka, also has red bumps in her genital area. Anya's mother, Liza, first brought Anya to the hospital on July 22 because she had a very high temperature, yellow skin, swollen eyes, and diarrhea. She also had the rash of red bumps.
The temperature and yellow coloring are gone, but the bumps and fatigue remain. Lubovcka would like to take her daughter somewhere else but doesn't know where to go. Because her village is not included in the ecological disaster zone, Anya will not be sent to a sanatorium
Although they are in the effected area, the children in Chausavo-2 were supposed to be evacuated, but the order was cancelled when the area was deemed safe. Still when schools across the country opened on Sept. 1, classrooms in Chausovo-2 remained closed.
"There are 80 children in our school, and all of them are in the hospital now," Koval explained.
Two-year-old Paulina was one of the first in Chausovo-2 to be diagnosed with toxidermatosis. A group of regional experts who came to the village on Aug. 27 told Paulina's mother, Olga, that Paulina had a classic case of toxidermatosis and to take her to the hospital. When a commission from Kyiv arrived on Sept. 1 Olga was told her daughter's diagnosis was not confirmed, and she was sent home.
But Paulina did not improve. She continued to suffer from diarrhea, fainting spells and a rash. Olga met with other villagers and they decided to return their sick children to the hospital.
When the mothers brought their children back they found treatment had not changed; but the diagnosis had. Olga was told that Paulina suffered from an allergy and she was administered the same vitamins that she was given earlier. When she prodded the doctors for more information, they told her they had been forbidden to diagnose toxidermatosis.
Alyosha's diagnosis was also changed to an allergy. The mother's noticed that the results of the first tests and the original diagnosis of toxidermatosis were removed from their childrens' charts before the Kyiv commission came. Prior to the Kyiv visit, Anatoly Kostenko, one of the few Chausovo-2 fathers at the hospital, was told his two sons were recovered and to take them home. But like the other parents, he took his sons back to the hospital. On Sept. 3, when another commission visited the area, he said that he was locked in the hospital with his fellow Chausovo-2 villagers so the commission would not see them.
The next day, the pediatrician in charge refused to talk to the press. Before shutting the door on a reporter the guard in the children's ward said she couldn't help us because she was afraid she might lose her job. The head of the hospital, Dr. Vasily Andronik, does not give interviews.
Region authorities report that there have been no new cases of toxidermatosis since Aug. 30.
"There are no sick children in Chausovo-2," Mohilevets said on Sept. 4. Lubov Malinovska, a worker at the medical clinic in Chausovo-1 treated many of her fellow villagers for toxidermatosis during the summer. The symptoms included declining eyesight, enlarged liver and pancreas, low blood pressure and either high or low body temperatures. But after the last commission came to her village, she was also told the original diagnosis of toxidermatosis was wrong
"Now I don't believe these new commission results."
At the Pidgirye medical clinic the woman in charge, also named Lubov, does not know what to think. She has been told the water is not safe to drink and all 72 of the village's children have been sent to a sanatorium in the Black Sea area.
On the door of both clinics is a sign saying it is unsafe to drink the water. "No one tells us the truth," laments Koval. "It is just like after the Chernobyl disaster."
(C) 2000
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