Diphtheria toll in Russia passes 100 in epidemic

August 22, 1993|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- Russia's diphtheria epidemic is worsening, with more than 4,000 cases already reported this year, the same number as for all of last year, and more than 100 deaths.

This fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union and its increasingly creaky system of health care prompted Russia last week to announce a mass immunization program over the next two years.

By contrast, in the mid-1970s, there were fewer than 200 cases a year of diphtheria in the entire Soviet Union. In the United States last year, there were four cases.

Diphtheria, which is transmitted by airborne bacteria, causes inflammation of the heart and nervous system. Untreated, it can cause rapid death. Those most at risk are young children who have not been immunized and adults who have let their inoculations lapse.

Some 70 percent of those who have died in the current epidemic are adults, according to the Russian State Committee for Epidemiological Control. Russians are traditionally wary of vaccinations, and stories are common of bad or dirty needles and contaminated vaccines, making many hesitant about being immunized.

According to the World Health Organization, only 47 percent of Russian children less than a year old were immunized for diphtheria in 1991.

Russia's deputy chief epidemiologist, Anatoly A. Monisov, said recently that of all the varying reports of typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis surfacing in Russia lately, "Diphtheria is the most alarming." He said that only 2 million of Moscow's 7.5 million adults had been vaccinated, and only 15 percent of adults throughout Russia.

While Westerners are considered safe because of childhood immunizations and tetanus-diphtheria booster shots every 10 years, Thomson Holidays, one of Britain's largest travel companies, has suspended its tours to Moscow and St. Petersburg after the end of this month.

Concern among Europeans has risen sharply with the death on Wednesday of a 62-year-old Belgian woman, Anne Petit, who is thought to have contracted diphtheria here. The Belgian Embassy announced the death on Friday.

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