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Turkmen Doctors Fear Epidemic

Doctors accuse authorities of covering up outbreak of deadly disease.
By Murad Novruzov

The outbreak of an infectious pulmonary disease in Turkmenistan that could have been prevented threatens to spiral out of control, doctors warn.


Around a dozen people have died after contracting pneumonic plague, which is similar to its notorious cousin the bubonic plague. While both diseases are spread by rats, the former - occurring when the untreated bubonic form spreads to the lungs - is potentially more serious as it is also transmitted by air, and not only by physical contact with an infected creature.


In spite of this, some Turkmen doctors claim that they have been ordered to "hush up" the potential problem, in keeping with President Saparmurat Niazov's belief that this is the "Golden Age of the People" in which nothing can possibly go wrong.


One medic, who would not give his name, said, “The plague is here, but we have been forbidden to talk about it," adding with heavy irony, "But don’t you know it simply isn't possible that there could be an outbreak of disease in Turkmenistan? Everything here is fine!”


Ashgabat clinic worker Jeren, who would not give her full name, told IWPR, “Our head doctor called a meeting recently and ordered us to go from house to house, warning citizens that if any one of us said that there was plague in the city, they would be arrested and charged with revealing state secrets.


"As absurd as this sounds, we were forced to sign statements to this effect.”


One businessman from the northern Dashoguz region told IWPR that 11 people took ill in the area last week and later died in a hospital where one of his relatives was being treated for an unconnected complaint. And another source in the area, who did not want to be named, claimed that doctors had been ordered to cover up the cause and mark down lethal cases as "food poisoning".


There have been three deaths in the southern Akhal region, near the capital, confirmed to IWPR by local doctors. A doctor at the main infectious diseases hospital in Ashgabat, who withheld her name, said that one person died on the way to the hospital, “It is a disease that can kill within two hours. The man had a cut on his hand, he and his friends slaughtered an animal, infection got through the wound which led to his death.”


A doctor at a district hospital, which had to accommodate the patients initially delivered to the main hospital, told IWPR that he witnessed deaths of two more people. “Two young people died in my hands and we could not do anything to help them,” said the medic on condition of anonymity.


“Me and my colleague were urgently sent to the village where they came from to fetch their relatives. Now they are being monitored at our hospital.”


Eyewitnesses report that this district hospital was cleared of all other patients, and the building itself was surrounded by soldiers and special services employees.


The recent deaths followed a May outbreak in the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk), leading many to fear that the infection is spreading out of control.


The incubation period for the disease varies between as little as two hours, or as long as nine days, and results in acute respiratory distress, which can prove fatal.


As the spread of the disease is aggravated by warm weather, many doctors believe that the current worrying situation in the republic could have been avoided if the authorities had taken appropriate measures back in May of this year.


Every city in Turkmenistan is equipped with an anti-plague station which should be used to monitor the health of the population and exterminate rats - usually blamed for spreading disease - but many of these have fallen into disuse due to lack of funding.


Observers fear that Turkmenistan's health service will be unable to cope with any serious outbreak of disease in the former Soviet republic, due to heavy cutbacks imposed earlier this year. More than 15,000 medical workers lost their jobs and were replaced with conscripted soldiers in what many people see as a purely money-saving move.


The sector was also hit hard by Niazov decree deeming all foreign degrees, diplomas and other qualifications to be "incompatible" with the Turkmen education system. The public-sector workers in question lost their jobs on June 1, after the authorities branded their education null and void.


Reports suggest that Ashgabat has already requested help from international health organisations to stem the spread of the disease, but the authorities have refused to confirm this.


Murad Novruzov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Ashgabat.


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