I don’t know what happened in the Ukraine regarding swine flu (or some other illness) and without any hard facts we refrained from speculating on it (we did post once on the lack of clarity and WHO’s reponse). We still don’t know what to say about what did or didn’t happen, although it appears others are now talking:
The global swine flu outbreak has become something of a political football in every country where the pandemic has spread, but Ukraine’s response to the virus has achieved a new level of blatant politicization. According to a campaign advisor to Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate purposely inflated fears of an ongoing swine-flu epidemic to aid her presidential run.
“We had to create a phantom and then have a white knight riding in to save the day,” Taras Berezovets, a senior campaign advisor for Tymoshenko’s BYuT bloc, told me in a Kiev restaurant, confirming widespread suspicions among Ukrainian journalists.
Since October, Ukraine has been in the grips of a full-blown panic over swine flu, complete with quarantines, school closures, runs on pharmacies. The Ukrainian health system, already badly dilapidated, was caught off guard and almost 400 people died of the flu in just three weeks. (Foreign Policy via NPR)
The long NPR story (from their content partner, Foreign Policy) details the electoral ups and downs of the two contending presidential candidates and how Yulia Tymoshenko effectively used (some say manufactured) the panic — and its antidote — to her advantage. It is quite likely that the Ukraine had a bad outbreak of swine flu and that their medical care system and government were unprepared. It is also quite likely that the opposition candidate used whatever was available to aid her campaign (or see this damning description in WaPo). It’s done everywhere. These kind of shenanigans go on in the US all the time. Now that the political effects have worked their way through the system the Ukrainians are saying whatever it was has peaked and the panic is over.
For us this once again confirms the utility of pausing when trying to evaluate “breaking” public health news. It’s not an accident that the first step in working up a disease outbreak is to “confirm the diagnosis.” That’s because in the early phases of any outbreak there is always a considerable amount of confusion and misinformation. Whether it’s the Ukraine or Argentina or swine flu in California in April, a “wait and see” attitude works best for those of us not on the ground and charged with stabilizing the situation.
It’s not always — in fact it’s not usually — easy to separate the wheat from the chaff during the opening days, or even weeks, of a disease outbreak. That’s no one’s fault. It is just the case that reliable information takes time to emerge from the noise and there is almost never any harm to waiting a bit for the dust to settle when you are observing and reporting. That’s one of the main reasons we don’t dwell on stories like the Ukraine outbreak here. Events that are a genuine cause for concern give a signal within a relatively short time (usually a week or two). Before that information isn’t reliable enough to weigh how much cause for concern there is.
That’s our advice, anyway. It’s not directed at anyone in particular. I’m not blaming the internet or the MSM or even the tabloids. By this time we all should be familiar with how this works. And since we are familiar with it, we shouldn’t forget all about it each time a new alarm is sounded.