Kosovo hit by epidemic of rat-borne disease tularemia

PRISTINA, Apr 18, 2000 -- (AFP) Health officials in Kosovo said Monday the devastated post-war province is suffering from an epidemic of tularemia, a potentially fatal disease used in biological warfare that is spread by rats.

So far 234 cases of the disease, never before seen in Kosovo, have been recorded in 90 percent of the Yugoslav province but none have proved fatal.

The strain detected in Kosovo is "relatively mild" said Erik Schouten, regional health adviser for the World Health Program (WHO), but warned people to take extra precautions such as boiling water, avoiding rabbit meat and not touching dead rats.

The disease is spread by rats in water reserves but is not being transmitted through Kosovo's chlorinated tap water, said Isuf Dedushaj of the epidemology department of Pristina's Institute of Public Health.

It may also be spread by ticks, he said. International experts on the disease are due to visit Kosovo to study its spread and means of combating it.

Dedushaj said 16 new cases had been reported on Monday alone.

Most of the cases have been in villages using wells or springs as their main source of drinking water and no international staff working for the United Nations mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) or aid agencies had been infected, UNMIK health official Hannu Vuori said.

Tularimia can be used as an agent in biological warfare, a health official in Pristina said, and can cause high fever, body aches, swollen glands and difficulty swallowing.

It is easily treated with antibiotics, health officials said.

Its sudden spread in Kosovo is due in part to the difficulties UNMIK has experienced in rebuilding waste disposal facilities, which has caused garbage to pile up in most urban areas and the rat population to swell.

UNMIK and KFOR peacekeepers have recently launched a variety of initiatives to clean up the province.

Original article