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Moscow Times
April 29, 2009
Swine Flu 'May Hit Russia in A Week'
By Maria Antonova and Alexandra Odynova / The Moscow Times

A senior virologist warned on Tuesday that the swine flu outbreak could reach Russia in a week and said the risk of a global pandemic was "very high."

But passengers greeted by mask-wearing health officials at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport brushed off concerns about swine flu, which has been linked to 149 deaths in Mexico and has been confirmed in the United States, Canada, Scotland, Spain and New Zealand.

The Agriculture Ministry expanded a ban on raw meat imports from the United States on Tuesday to include meat products carried in passengers' carry-on luggage and food served on planes and ships.

No cases have been reported in Russia. A Russian woman who recently visited Mexico was hospitalized in Moscow on Monday night, but doctors said Tuesday that she did not have the swine flu virus.

"The risk of a pandemic in the world is very high. It could reach Russia in a week," Dmitry Lvov, head of the Institute of Virology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said at a news conference.

No vaccine is available for the virus, with scientists saying the earliest one will be ready will be in the fall. Lvov said people could protect themselves in the meantime by taking anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu.

"We should have masks everywhere. I would advise against participating in large events and would also advise taking anti-viral medicines ... as a preventive step," he said. Lvov, however, criticized airport checks and meat bans as ways of preventing swine flu from reaching Russia.

The World Health Organization -- which raised its alert level for swine flu by a notch Monday to indicate that the virus is capable of significant human-to-human transmission -- said Tuesday that it was not recommending travel restrictions and border closures. Infected people may not show symptoms at the airport, so travel limitations are ineffective, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told reporters in Geneva, Reuters reported. "Border controls don't work. Screening doesn't work," he said.

At Sheremetyevo Airport, health officials wearing white cloaks and face masks met passengers arriving on an Aeroflot flight from New York on Tuesday afternoon.

A "visual control" has been set up on board all flights landing in Sheremetyevo, said Artur Bunin, the chief doctor for the airport.

"A flight from New York to Moscow takes about 11 hours. During this time, our well-trained plane staff are able to detect an infected passenger on board," Bunin told reporters in the airport's arrival hall.

Airport custom officers could be seen through the gateway glass wearing face masks, too.

"We are fearful because we are very serious about this," Bunin said.

Passengers, however, seemed unconcerned about the virus, and several said they hadn't noticed any officials wearing masks at other airports.

Timur Uzbekov, who arrived from New York, was the only passenger who could be seen wearing a mask at Sheremetyevo on Tuesday afternoon.

"I just thought it would be safer," Uzbekov said. "I went from Los Angeles to New York and expected see panic and people in masks but didn't notice anything like that."

He said he had not experienced any additional hassle at Sheremetyevo other than "some people in white asked what kind of food passengers were carrying in their bags."

Passengers arriving from Europe were smiling and relaxed. A few on a plane from Athens said they had not heard about swine flu. "Can you see a swine here?" they joked when approached by a group of reporters.

The Federal Consumer Protection Service asked travel agencies on Tuesday to alert people planning trips to the Americas about the "possible risk of contacting the flu-like disease," Interfax reported.

Meat products will be more thoroughly checked at Moscow's markets, said the city's veterinary committee, Interfax reported. Uncooked meat from Mexico and the United States will be isolated, the committee said.

The Agriculture Ministry's health watchdog widened the ban on raw meat imports from some U.S. states and Mexico, prompting a protest by the U.S. Embassy, which said there was no reason for the restrictions because the virus spreads from person to person, not from meat. "We look forward to a quick resumption of normal meat trade with Russia," the embassy said in a statement.

"It's an understandable reaction but an overreaction by Russia," said Andrew Somers, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. "But Russia is not acting out of the ordinary."

The European Union said Tuesday that it would not restrict imports of U.S. meat. "We have no plans to ban any meat, pork or food products from the U.S. since there is no connection between food and the flu at present, and such a move would be unjust," a European Commission official told Reuters.