Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

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AAN Guest Blog: Influenza politica

Christopher Reuter 7 min

The following blog about a government-made swine flu hysteria is provided by CHRISTOPH REUTER, a reporter with ‘Stern’ magazine in Germany who is currently in Kabul.

On 28 October, Afghanistan‘s Minister of Public Health issued a press release that did not receive much attention: Currently there were 58 cases of H1N1, better known as swine flu, in the country. 50 cases were foreigners, eight Afghans. A lot of people die in Afghanistan for different reasons. Despite billions of foreign aid money, the country had one of the lowest life expectance rates worldwide.

But immediately after the runner-up in the recent presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from the second round because no one of the people responsible for the massive fraud in the first round was reprimanded, the swine flu developed an enormous momentum. On 1 November, Health Minister Muhammad Amin Fatemi appealed to fellow Afghans in dramatic words: Swine flu had spread like a wildfire, and there were 400 people infected and eight dead in Kabul alone. Days later this had increased to 700 infected and eleven dead. ‘I personally expect 70,000 deaths in Afghanistan’, the minister said and added that this estimate was based on population/death rates in other countries. As a precautionary step, all schools, universities and wedding halls were closed at least for three weeks. Larger gatherings were banned.

The closures and the permanent hint that there were hundreds of cases on the US base in Bagram created some panic in Kabul and other larger cities. Protective masks became a hit for street vendors, prices soared from 5 to 25 Afghani (some 30 Euro-Cent). At road sides, gigantic posters appeared to regularly wash hands. In the first days after Fatemi’s dramatic words, almost half of the Kabulis only went outside with such a mask.

Some days after Abdullah‘s withdrawal, the run-off election was cancelled and the ‘Independent Election Commission‘ declared Hamed Karzai the new president – one day after Fatemi’s dramatic speech. Protests or riots did not happen. Maybe it helped that the universities were closed anyway, larger gatherings were banned and more Afghans were more concerned about their health than about democracy. In the meantime, Minister Fatemi requested 125 million US dollars emergency aid for some million units of vaccine.

At the same time, Kabul‘s biggest hospitals like the Ibn Sina or the Indira Gandhi Hospital cleared whole yards for the expected influx of patients and asked Western aid organization to come and repair their respiratory machines. But the storm did not take place.

When a reporter of a small independent TV station checked in those hospitals which were named by the hospital as treatment centres for the infected, he found empty wards and perplexed nurses. ‘We went to eight public and four private hospitals‘, the reporter says, ‘and only in Indira Gandhi Hospital we were told by the doctors that there were nine suspicious cases. But since the hospital was unable to identify the virus, those people were sent home again. No one had a confirmed case, no one knew of any case a patient died.’

The Ministry, requested for names and addresses of deceased, refused to give any information. When Nurin TV broadcasted its reports of empty hospitals on two consecutive nights, minister Fatemi said that he would sue the station. After that he instructed all Kabul hospitals to give information about people infected with H1N1 to journalists.

Data were only handed out by the ministry since then. Saturday last week, the head of the department for medical prevention, Dr. Muhammad Taufiq Mashal, referred to ‘779 cases in seven provinces, mainly in Mazar-e Sharif and Herat. Furthermore [there were] 14 dead, the last one only two days ago in Herat.’ The identity of the deceased ‘we keep secret for reasons of piety‘, he added. He accused journalists who had found barely a case of the disease that they were ‘politically motivated: They want to insinuate that the minister had banned gathering only so that anybody could demonstrate against Karzai’s proclamation as president. But the pandemy is for real! We expect 350,000 cases in Afghanistan soon.‘

Doctors in Herat report only six suspicious cases. Blood samples were sent to Kabul for verification. But they had no information about any fatalities. The same in Mazar-e Sharif: ‘3000 people asked for advice in hospitals‘, says Mirwais Rabi, head of the city’s health department. ‘But in the whole of Northern Afghanistan we do not have a single case yet.’ A doctor at the private German Medical Center in Kabul said that, despite an onrush storm of concerned people, it had ‘tested one single case as positive for H1N1.’ But that was a light case and the patient was sent home with some pills.

Meanwhile, the normal influenza rages through Afghanistan as in any fall when the temperatures sink abruptly. But its symptoms are barely to distinguish from H1N1.

Only one government institute in the country is able to diagnose swine flu: the virological laboratory of Ibn Sina Hospital in Kabul. Its head, Dr. Gholameshan Sharifi, says that until recently his institute had had only 200 test sets. 200 additional ones had arrived on Saturday.

How can he diagnose the officially announced 800 infections with 200 test sets? ‘Please contact the ministry on this‘, says Dr. Sharifi. But behind his back, there is a whiteboard with the H1N1 tests: ‘Onset, status 10 November: 540 quick tests and 122 PCR tests. Negative cases: 44; Influenza A: 17; H1N1: 61’. So 61 confirmed infections, not 800. An ISAF spokesperson informed on Sunday that the military mission was irritated by the alleged rate of H1N1 cases: ‘The figures released by the health ministry did not originate here. We have to check first how many cases we have.’

Instead of the virus, amongst Afghans slowly the realisation is spreading that the ministry’s panic might have another cause than care about public health. The phantom disease has acquired a new name: ‘Influenza politica’.

In the meantime, the ministry has announced that schools will reopen soon so that students can take their year-end exams – that will be after President Karzai’s inauguration on 19 November .

The following blog about a government-made swine flu hysteria is provided by CHRISTOPH REUTER, a reporter with ‘Stern’ magazine in Germany who is currently in Kabul.

On 28 October, Afghanistan‘s Minister of Public Health issued a press release that did not receive much attention: Currently there were 58 cases of H1N1, better known as swine flu, in the country. 50 cases were foreigners, eight Afghans. A lot of people die in Afghanistan for different reasons. Despite billions of foreign aid money, the country had one of the lowest life expectance rates worldwide.

But immediately after the runner-up in the recent presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from the second round because no one of the people responsible for the massive fraud in the first round was reprimanded, the swine flu developed an enormous momentum. On 1 November, Health Minister Muhammad Amin Fatemi appealed to fellow Afghans in dramatic words: Swine flu had spread like a wildfire, and there were 400 people infected and eight dead in Kabul alone. Days later this had increased to 700 infected and eleven dead. ‘I personally expect 70,000 deaths in Afghanistan’, the minister said and added that this estimate was based on population/death rates in other countries. As a precautionary step, all schools, universities and wedding halls were closed at least for three weeks. Larger gatherings were banned.

The closures and the permanent hint that there were hundreds of cases on the US base in Bagram created some panic in Kabul and other larger cities. Protective masks became a hit for street vendors, prices soared from 5 to 25 Afghani (some 30 Euro-Cent). At road sides, gigantic posters appeared to regularly wash hands. In the first days after Fatemi’s dramatic words, almost half of the Kabulis only went outside with such a mask.

Some days after Abdullah‘s withdrawal, the run-off election was cancelled and the ‘Independent Election Commission‘ declared Hamed Karzai the new president – one day after Fatemi’s dramatic speech. Protests or riots did not happen. Maybe it helped that the universities were closed anyway, larger gatherings were banned and more Afghans were more concerned about their health than about democracy. In the meantime, Minister Fatemi requested 125 million US dollars emergency aid for some million units of vaccine.

At the same time, Kabul‘s biggest hospitals like the Ibn Sina or the Indira Gandhi Hospital cleared whole yards for the expected influx of patients and asked Western aid organization to come and repair their respiratory machines. But the storm did not take place.

When a reporter of a small independent TV station checked in those hospitals which were named by the hospital as treatment centres for the infected, he found empty wards and perplexed nurses. ‘We went to eight public and four private hospitals‘, the reporter says, ‘and only in Indira Gandhi Hospital we were told by the doctors that there were nine suspicious cases. But since the hospital was unable to identify the virus, those people were sent home again. No one had a confirmed case, no one knew of any case a patient died.’

The Ministry, requested for names and addresses of deceased, refused to give any information. When Nurin TV broadcasted its reports of empty hospitals on two consecutive nights, minister Fatemi said that he would sue the station. After that he instructed all Kabul hospitals to give information about people infected with H1N1 to journalists.

Data were only handed out by the ministry since then. Saturday last week, the head of the department for medical prevention, Dr. Muhammad Taufiq Mashal, referred to ‘779 cases in seven provinces, mainly in Mazar-e Sharif and Herat. Furthermore [there were] 14 dead, the last one only two days ago in Herat.’ The identity of the deceased ‘we keep secret for reasons of piety‘, he added. He accused journalists who had found barely a case of the disease that they were ‘politically motivated: They want to insinuate that the minister had banned gathering only so that anybody could demonstrate against Karzai’s proclamation as president. But the pandemy is for real! We expect 350,000 cases in Afghanistan soon.‘

Doctors in Herat report only six suspicious cases. Blood samples were sent to Kabul for verification. But they had no information about any fatalities. The same in Mazar-e Sharif: ‘3000 people asked for advice in hospitals‘, says Mirwais Rabi, head of the city’s health department. ‘But in the whole of Northern Afghanistan we do not have a single case yet.’ A doctor at the private German Medical Center in Kabul said that, despite an onrush storm of concerned people, it had ‘tested one single case as positive for H1N1.’ But that was a light case and the patient was sent home with some pills.

Meanwhile, the normal influenza rages through Afghanistan as in any fall when the temperatures sink abruptly. But its symptoms are barely to distinguish from H1N1.

Only one government institute in the country is able to diagnose swine flu: the virological laboratory of Ibn Sina Hospital in Kabul. Its head, Dr. Gholameshan Sharifi, says that until recently his institute had had only 200 test sets. 200 additional ones had arrived on Saturday.

How can he diagnose the officially announced 800 infections with 200 test sets? ‘Please contact the ministry on this‘, says Dr. Sharifi. But behind his back, there is a whiteboard with the H1N1 tests: ‘Onset, status 10 November: 540 quick tests and 122 PCR tests. Negative cases: 44; Influenza A: 17; H1N1: 61’. So 61 confirmed infections, not 800. An ISAF spokesperson informed on Sunday that the military mission was irritated by the alleged rate of H1N1 cases: ‘The figures released by the health ministry did not originate here. We have to check first how many cases we have.’

Instead of the virus, amongst Afghans slowly the realisation is spreading that the ministry’s panic might have another cause than care about public health. The phantom disease has acquired a new name: ‘Influenza politica’.

In the meantime, the ministry has announced that schools will reopen soon so that students can take their year-end exams – that will be after President Karzai’s inauguration on 19 November .

Tags:

Government 2009 Elections swine flu

Authors:

Christopher Reuter

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