Task force to combat disease outbreak in Kosovo

PRISTINA, Apr 21, 2000 -- (Reuters) Almost 500 people in Kosovo have been taken ill with a disease believed to have been spread by rats and rabbits, and an international task force has been formed to combat it, UN officials said on Thursday.

Victims of the disease, suspected to be tularemia, suffer high fever, severe body aching and swollen glands, while some develop neck boils. No deaths have been reported.

"This is not a plague or cause for panic. Tularemia is easily treatable with antibiotics once identified," said Kirsten Haupt from Kosovo's post-war UN transitional administration (UNMIK).

"But we are now telling the public to drink only boiled water, wash their vegetables only with boiled water and not to touch rats or rabbits," Haupt told Reuters.

Most of the suspected cases have been in the Pec and Djakovica regions of western Kosovo which suffered the worst destruction in the 1998-99 conflict between Kosovo Albanian separatists and Serbian security forces.

Some ground water was contaminated by carcasses of animals that lay rotting in fields for weeks after being killed by gunfire or were thrown down Albanian farm wells by Serbs.

Bacterial diseases like tularemia have also spread from garbage dumps that pervade Kosovo - attracting rats, rabbits, dogs and sometimes scavenging people in this impoverished and broken land - in the absence of regular waste removal.

A World Health Organization team came to the region this week to help investigate the reported tularemia outbreak and draw up a disease control program. Haupt said a mobile German medical laboratory would arrive shortly.


A 25-member task force grouping WHO, UNMIK, KFOR peacekeepers, the International Rescue Committee and World Vision agencies was set up this week with more than $500,000 in funding, some from the World Bank, Haupt said.

She said 18 of the suspected 480 cases had been confirmed as tularemia in blood tests that were conducted in neighboring Albania and Macedonia. More than half had been identified in the past week as rural doctors began responding to an urgent WHO appeal for information to pinpoint problem areas.

The first cases date back to August 1999, two months after Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo under NATO bombing that ended the vicious conflict.

"Tularemia can be transmitted to humans via ticks, drinking water contaminated by rats, handling of undercooked infected meats from host animals (including rabbits), and through contaminated soil," a WHO press statement said.

It said the disease control program would probably include measures to improve waste disposal in the Yugoslav province.

Post-war Kosovo has been generally free of serious disease despite widespread insanitary conditions and poor nutrition.

A typhoid epidemic was feared as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees flooded back into devastated areas right after the Serbian withdrawal, but never materialized.

Original article