Old Killers Return to Kazakstan

Health officials try to play down recent outbreaks of potentially fatal illnesses.

Old Killers Return to Kazakstan

Health officials try to play down recent outbreaks of potentially fatal illnesses.

When 9-year-old Kanat Kaleshev began to feel unwell in June of this year, few people suspected just how serious his illness would prove to be. When the youngster's condition failed to improve, he was transferred from the south-west region of Kyzylorda to a hospital in the Aral area, where he was found to be suffering from the bubonic plague.


Kanat's doctors suspect he contracted the dreaded disease from a flea-bite - the same manner in which "the black death" spread across Europe in the 14th century, killing a third of the population. And while his is the first case of bubonic plague in the country this year, there are worrying signs that this old killer is once again stalking Kazakstan.


There have been outbreaks of plague and other dangerous contagious diseases such as typhoid and cholera for several years now. However, Kazak officials are still trying to convince the public that there is nothing to worry about. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has declared 2002 to be the "Year of Health", and they don't want to upset their leader with gloomy reports.


Anatoly Belonog, the country's deputy health minister and head state doctor, insists that only illnesses such as AIDS, brucellosis, tuberculosis and respiratory ailments are still on the rise.


He does not mention the occasional outbreaks of diseases that the Kazak people have not had to fear for decades.


An epidemic of typhoid broke out in June in south Kazakstan. Nursulu Tasmagambetova, head doctor at the region's epidemiological station, told IWPR that of 44 people who were hospitalised, 17 had the illness confirmed by a laboratory, and three were given a clinical diagnosis.


Additionally, 24 patients were listed as suffering from high temperatures and intestinal disorders - typical symptoms of typhoid. According to workers at the local sanitary and epidemiological stations, the disease was contracted through vegetables that had been cultivated with sewage water and later sold in local markets.


The typhoid epidemic and the bubonic plague case suggest that health conditions in the country have significantly worsened.


Following Kanat Kaleshev's diagnosis, disinfection procedures were carried out in 660 square km around his home village of Kulandy, and the disease's main carriers - insects such as fleas and ticks, as well as rodents - were tackled.


The current outbreak is not the first in Kazakstan. Although a programme of active vaccination during the Soviet era had led to the eradication of the disease, nine people contracted it in 1999 - two of whom died.


The next incident was in August 2001, again in the Kyzylorda province, after a man and his 13-year-old son fell ill after multiple flea-bites. The man died a few days later. Doctors discovered four strains of the plague and had to spend several weeks disinfecting the affected area.


A health industry spokesperson, who did not want to be named, warned, "The plague may reappear in Aral. This is a natural breeding ground and it is impossible to completely wipe out fleas and rodents. Realistically, all we can do is to create safety zones around the inhabited areas."


Some media reports connected the recent disease scares with a reduction in the funding of state laboratories. They draw particular attention to the abandoned research stations on the island of Vozrozhednie in the Aral Sea, where bacterial weapons were once manufactured.


However, Kazak experts believe this has no connection with the illnesses. "The region is traditionally a natural area for plague," said Kenes Ospanov, head doctor at the republic sanitary and epidemiological station.


Meanwhile, another old enemy seems to be making a comeback. There are fears of a new cholera epidemic in Atyrau, in the west of the country, after a water-borne strain of the disease was discovered in the Ural river last month.


Doctors suspect that the virus may have got into the river earlier this year after water from a nearby reservoir flooded a cemetery where cholera victims had been buried.


The Kazak health minister Jaksylyk Doskaliev sought to allay fears, saying, "There is no threat of a cholera epidemic in the Atyrau province. The situation is under control".


The public though is unconvinced by the minister's reassurances. Almaty confectionary worker Elena Stepanova told IWPR, "I understand that it is difficult, but it would better if our health service prevented illnesses instead of curing them."


Yuliana Zhikhor is an independent journalist in Kazakstan


Support our journalists