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Kyrgyzstan: Deadly Disease Peril

Cash crisis in health service so acute that specimens of anthrax are ferried to an infectious diseases laboratory by public transport.
By Natalia Domagalskaia

Lab assistant shows metal container for transporting potentially deadly samples of anthrax, cholera and the bubonic plague.
The type of protective clothing used by Kyrgyz medics.
Senior lab assistant Aissara Kochkorbaeva in her office. Photos © Natalia Domagalskaia

Deadly consignments of anthrax, cholera and the bubonic plague are being transported to a scientific research centre on buses and taxis because the government is so short of funds.


Metal cartons with samples of the diseases delivered to the Republic Centre for Quarantine and Especially Dangerous Infections are routinely carried alongside unsuspecting members of the public, to the increasing concern of the scientists employed there.


Referring to the taxi drivers that unknowingly deliver the deadly consignments, one researcher said, “What can we do? We have no other means of transportation, and if you tell the driver the truth he might get scared and refuse to bring us our package.”


The authorities, it seems, don’t have the funds to make safer deliveries, nor properly secure the centre and protect its staff.


The laboratory, which is located 20 metres away from of one of Bishkek’s busiest streets, is guarded by elderly people on meagre wages, while researchers work in cramped conditions and their protective clothing - comprising rubber boots, pyjamas, a gown, a thick cotton-wool mask and heavy goggles - is considered antique.


In spite of the poor conditions, however, the scientists and researchers have a spotless safety record.


Deputy Health Minister Guljigit Aliev said there were insufficient funds for the healthcare system and the infections centre in particular.


“Only enthusiasts can work under these conditions,” he said. “ Nevertheless, our quarantine service is acknowledged as one of the best in the CIS, and we are continuing in the best tradition of anti-plague work begun by the Soviet Union.


“But since neither the republic nor the ministry is able to increase the financing, the only hope is to negotiate with potential foreign donors, especially Americans."


The centre’s director Jalalidin Gaibulin does not complain about the lack of financial support from the state, and is content to follow the ministry’s suggestion and approach international sponsors for help.


The centre recently joined forces with the republic’s veterinary service to develop a ten-year programme to combat the spread of brucellosis, a disease that spreads from sick cattle through infected milk or meat products. While the illness is not fatal, it can disable people and render them infertile.


Tatiana Samsonova, the centre’s deputy head, said that Kyrgyzstan has the highest rates of brucellosis infection in Central Asia, and that measures were desperately needed to tackle the problem.


“We can solve the problem only through sanitary awareness campaigns, efforts of the veterinary service and doctors, and social measures,” she said.


“We must also overcome corruption, where a bribe can allow one permission to sell infected meat or milk on the market. And we must compensate peasants for the necessary slaughter of their cattle.


“But our proposals have not yet interested any foreign investors, perhaps because they feel that our misfortunes don’t endanger their own countries.”


The centre has similarly struggled to mobilise international support to for its attempts to combat bubonic plague, for which there are more than a thousand known breeding grounds in the republic.


During the Soviet era, special units went on two- to three-month expeditions to disinfect the deadly bacteria on a yearly basis, but there has been no money to fund this since the republic gained its independence in 1991.


The danger is exacerbated by public ignorance. Many Kyrgyz believe that the bubonic plague no longer exists, and that the main health dangers are HIV/AIDS and SARS.


Natalia Domagalskaia is an independent journalist in Bishkek.


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