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In Russia, some success has already been achieved with culling birds at risk of catching the disease and setting up quarantine zones.

But that’s not enough. The government has to ensure that, in the tiny villages in the southern part of the Urals district where the bulk of reported H5N1 cases have occurred, the emergence of new infections is closely monitored.

But how many thousands of rural villagers who live on $50 a month, who keep a few dozen chickens in a shed at the back of the house for meat and eggs, are going to fess up to owning them when the officials pop by to collect them for slaughter? And who’s keeping an eye on these officials, a thousand miles from Moscow, to ensure they’re not taking a hundred rubles from a babushka to ignore her modest collection of hens, which she needs to feed her granddaughter?

Still, the smart money is best spent on surveillance — to ensure humans and infected birds are kept well apart.

But in February, Gennady Onischenko, Russia’s chief doctor, appeared on state television, saying millions of dollars will be allocated to churning out hundreds of millions of doses of H5N1 vaccine — and that each and every domestic fowl in 11 time zones worth of land will be vaccinated, beginning in spring. No word on how many monkeys flew out of his ass after saying that, or whether those monkeys were vaccinated too.

Indeed, a month later, right on cue, state television showed truckload after truckload of shiny new vaccine dispatched to parts unknown, from a Soviet-era lab in the Vladimir region that had been magically activated and brought up to full production capacity in the space of a few weeks.

Never mind that the process of manufacturing vaccines is still based on 1950s technology and is incredibly resource-and        time-intensive.

According to Michael Osterholm, the director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in the U.S.: “The current system of producing and distributing influenza vaccine is broken, both technically and financially.” In other words: if the United States doesn’t have a hope in hell of vaccinating all of its birds, how is Russia going to manage to do it in a matter of months, as promised? Right now we don’t know — since the labs are military, no one in the media’s allowed to take a serious look.

It’s admirable that the Russian government has made avian influenza a priority. But if their promises of action are just another smokescreen, it’s the health of the planet that’s at stake.

This article was published in issue #234 of The eXile, March 2006.

Read more: , , Benjamin Velizar, eXile Classic

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