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Ukraine Closes All Schools To Fight Swine Flu

YANA SEDOVA and SIMON SHUSTER   11/ 2/09 03:57 PM ET   AP

Ukraine Swine Flu

KIEV, Ukraine — Urging its citizens not to panic, Ukraine on Monday closed the nation's schools for a week to avoid the spread of swine flu and suggested that nightclubs, cinemas and food markets in the west also shut down.

The World Health Organization said Monday there was no evidence that Ukraine had a bad outbreak of swine flu but at the government's request it had sent a health team there to help the country cope.

"But this is not an indication that the situation is severe," said WHO spokeswoman Liuba Negru. "The information we have gotten (from the government), we have to double-check it and make sure it is real, evidence-based information."

Ukraine's Health Ministry said Monday that 70 people in the nation of 40 million have died of flu, but did not say how many of those deaths were related to swine flu. Worldwide, outbreaks of regular seasonal flu claim 50,000 lives each year.

Nevertheless, all schools have been closed for a week across Ukraine, even in the capital, Kiev, where there have been no confirmed cases of swine flu.

In western Ukraine, local authorities advised people to travel only when necessary, a Health Ministry spokeswoman said.

All outdoor markets have been closed in the western region of Lviv, where the governor also urged cinemas, cafes, nightclubs and theaters to shut down until further notice.

Some observers, including the speaker of the parliament, Vladimir Litvin, suggested that these measures are the result of political wrangling ahead of the country's presidential election in January. The pivotal vote could overturn the 2004 Orange Revolution that swept a pro-Western government to power.

"We are seeing a political competition to see who will be the first to lead this process (of fighting swine flu)," Litvin said, according to the UNIAN news agency.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko met a Swiss shipment of anti-viral drugs at the Kiev airport on Monday.

"The government has declared the situation an epidemic, but there is absolutely no need to panic," she declared on national television.

Her main rival, President Viktor Yushchenko, said thousands of people were infected and called for assistance from NATO, the European Commission, the United States, Russia and other countries.

Konstantin Bondarenko, director of the Gorshenin Institute, a political consultancy, said that Tymoshenko has the most to lose from public sentiment over the outbreak, as state health officials answer to her.

"Right now all the candidates are weighing their political options, looking around for a theme, and this is a very hot topic right now. The panic is there, and they are acting on it," Bondarenko said.

After receiving the shipment of 300,000 doses of Tamiflu at Kiev's Borispol airport, Tymoshenko said her government plans to increase its hoard of the drug by another 300,000 to 950,000 doses.

"This is the supply that will reliably protect Ukraine," Tymoshenko said, ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Viktor Yanukovych, the Regions' Party candidate for the presidency, has not commented on the swine flu uproar. Yanukovych, who was beaten in 2005 by Yushchenko, is leading in the polls with a platform that emphasizes closer ties with Russia.

During the past five years of Yushchenko's presidency, relations with Moscow reached historic lows. Yushchenko's approval ratings at home have fallen to single digits in the wake of the economic crisis, which hit Ukraine hard, and years of political gridlock with Tymoshenko.

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Associated Press writer Simon Shuster reported from Moscow.

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Filed by Nick Graham  |