Crisis-Hit Moscow Now
Faces New Threat - Rabies -
Three Dead Already
By Alastair Macdonald
MOSCOW (Reuters) - As if Muscovites did not have enough worries with job losses, a slumping rouble and emptying stores, officials revealed a new threat on Tuesday -- rabies. The authorities firmly denied a report that three people had already died of the disease but issued stern warnings that the Russian capital faced the most threatening outbreak of rabies in half a century, partly because cash shortages have bitten into the budget for preventive measures in surrounding countryside. Some 80 rabid animals have been identified in Moscow Region around the city so far this year, officials said, double the figure for the whole of last year and 10 times what it was three years ago. That has raised fears of an epidemic of the sort last seen in the chaotic period after World War Two. ``We haven't had rabies in Moscow city since 1946, when there was an epidemic and they had to destroy animals because dozens of people died,'' said Sergei Sereda, director of the Tsentr Veterinary Clinic in central Moscow. Now his busy surgery is plastered with warnings urging pet owners to have their dogs and cats vaccinated immediately. ``The situation is dangerously explosive,'' Sereda said. Alexander Tunik of Moscow city council's veterinary service confirmed that there had been a handful of recorded instances of animals inside the city with the disease in recent months. All of these, however, had been infected when their owners had taken them to the countryside over the summer, when millions of Muscovites retreat to their garden plots known as dachas. ``We don't have true rabies in the city yet. And, thank God, it hasn't affected people -- for the time being,'' he said. ``The problem is in Moscow Region. In the past, it has been controlled by putting oral vaccines in feed for foxes and other animals. But now they don't have the funds,'' Tunik told Reuters. The alternative, Sereda said, was for pet owners to have their own animals vaccinated. But he estimated there may be more than a million dogs and several million cats in the city of some 12 million people -- only a small proportion had been innoculated even though it cost as little as $1 dollar. ``Unfortunately there's no law which forces people to seek this vaccination,'' he said. Adding to the problem is the large number of stray dogs and cats roaming the streets of the capital. ``These animals move around a lot and so the more strays there are, the risk goes up geometrically,'' Sereda said. ``The risk of illness is growing every day. In my 20 years of practice I've never seen anything like it,'' he added. Moscow's populist mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, ran into flak last year from animal rights campaigners in the West, notably French film star Brigitte Bardot, over reports that city employees were shooting stray dogs. In fact, efforts to control the population concentrate on sterilising the strays, officials say. In 1996, the last year for which figures were available, eight Russians died of rabies out of 439 who sought medical help after being bitten by infected animals, official data showed.