Altai Krai residents have found themselves in an «exclusion zone» because of antrax  08/31/2012, 11:11
Photography: Nikita Khnyunin

Rumours are actively circulating on the internet that an anthrax outbreak has been recorded in Biysk, Altai Krai (territory). Even the exact number of infected is reported, to make it more convincing. There really are some people in the town who have been infected with the disease, but they have been brought in for treatment from the villages of Druzhba (Friendship) and Marushka in the Tselinny District. Sib.fm’s correspondents headed to the quarantine zone, heard the sentences passed down to dogs and learned why you should be afraid of dead cows.

The man at the entrance to the village of Marushka looks like a stalker. Biohazard suit with a white lab coat and a rubber apron on top. His eyes are protected by transparent glasses, which look like aviation goggles. The wheels of each vehicle receive a portion of smelly liquid from him, then a sharp hand gesture: «Drive on!»

«It’s sawdust soaked in a 10% caustic soda solution. That’s what we use to decontaminate cars,» he says, muffled by the protective mask. In fact, people react calmly, as long as the whole car doesn’t get sprayed. No one cares about their wheels.«

Traffic police are on duty here at the entrance to the village. They are extremely concerned because their replacements for the next shift are running late, and they already want to eat.

«Look at our smiling faces! We have everything under control,» they insist.

They are responsible for checking the boots of cars for «hazardous agricultural products». A Biysk Veterinary Department driver helps them to record car number plates. He replies to the question «Why is that necessary?» by shrugging his shoulders: «We’re just following orders.» He adds that this post will work for two weeks after the last disease case.

Here, people try and avoid the word «anthrax», replacing it with general terms like «disease», «incident» and «occurrence.» The faces of the «persons exercising their functions» are indeed smiling, which cannot be said of the local residents. There are not so many of them on the streets of Marushka village at 9 a.m.. However, the villagers’ caution can be easily explained by the influx of numerous journalists.

«What panic? There’s no panic here,» a passing old lady mutters under her breath. «They’re panicking in Druzhba. A person has died there. Why should we neighbours be afraid? Doctors have already been here. All services are running normally, which means that the disease will be eliminated.»

«Safety Instructions. Warning — Anthrax» warns a notice on a wooden outhouse, which the old woman was heading towards. Nearby, two girls from the local authorities are hanging up the same flyers. A group of curious pensioners is already gathering around them.

«Oh, what are they writing?» asks one.
«’Anthrax can be contracted through wounds and cracked hands... By eating contaminated meat... Precautionary measures...’ Here you go, read!» says another one, pointing.
«I need my glasses. Can’t see a thing without them.»

There are more and more people outside. They are all moving in one direction — towards the local Community Centre. A village gathering will be held there soon, where official information will finally be announced to everyone. Maybe they will also be told how to live with this and what to do.

«Through cracks, it’s written. There’s nothing about chickens. Through cracks, and not through chickens!» says an old lady, who read the «Safety Instructions» and has already formed her own «village council» at the entrance to the building.

Meanwhile, the hall is almost full. Local Fire Service Head Anatoly Subbotin is lingering in the doorway. He has already detached his personal bottle of caustic soda, which looks like scuba gear, and came to listen to what the head of the Veterinary Department has to say to the people.

«We fill up the machines at the entrance to the village that you saw,» says Subbotin. «Our fire brigade runs like clockwork. But everyone still feels ill at ease. Because the enemy is invisible.

«We can see fire, so we’re not afraid. But now nothing is clear. All departments are different; they hide their tricks of the trade from each other... People talk a lot around the village.»

Ivan Gatilov, Head of the Regional Veterinary Department, clarifies the situation from the very start of his speech — he tells people what led to the death of a man from anthrax in the neighbouring village of Druzhba.

«Levin did not consult a vet. He cut up his dead cow himself and fed the animal to his dogs. Levin died several days later. The Governor signed the paper to impose quarantine on 25th August,» explains Gatilov. The people in the audience listen quietly and attentively. That story is old news here.

Excitement in the ranks grows only when the speech turns to the quarantine period. A woman gets up from her seat and asks when it will finally be possible to sell meat. Never, her neighbour ironically says: even after the two-week ban it is unlikely that anyone will dare to buy a «dubious product».

Discontent in the audience peaks when dogs are being sentenced. About a hundred stray animals have been shot in 2 days and there are no plans to stop at that.

«Even if I tie up my dog, others that have been left loose will run around it! What should I do then?» shouts a woman from the front row.

Gatilov suggests voluntarily putting the animal down to universal cries of outrage.

«Anthrax starts with a red patch that itches unbearably, swells and turns black. Death sets in on the fifth day.» Roasted onion is considered a folk remedy.

People start to pay attention again only when the district’s senior doctor takes to the microphone. Svetlana Samarkina starts to methodically scare the villagers. She’s not trying to, of course; she’s just telling them how the disease takes its course and with which symptoms it is necessary to seek medical attention. Nevertheless, the room is frightened. Some furtively examine their hands in search of itchy red spots, which will harden tomorrow and turn into ulcers on the following day.

«The source of infection for a human is a dead or sick animal,» explains Svetlana. «Dead cows caused the infections in our Tselinny District. There is quarantine here because one diagnosis in Marushka village has been confirmed in the laboratory. Yesterday, vaccination of villagers started in Druzhba. It will start later here, because doctors have already gone around, examined you all and given antibiotics as a precaution. This bacillus really can be destroyed by everyday antibiotics. Now we’ll wait until the drugs have left the body, then we’ll give you the vaccine.

Последняя фраза несколько успокаивает людей. «Невозможно от человека к человеку», — проносится по залу шёпот. Все поднимаются. Сельсовет окончен. The last phrase somewhat calms people. A whisper sweeps around the room: «It’s impossible from person to person.» All rise. The Village Council is over.

It is 2 kilometres from Marushka to Druzhba. Here, no one is wearing protective masks.

Veterinarians, dressed in tight white suits so that only their eyes are visible, call in to villagers’ farmyards and check the vaccinations that were given the day before. The first round was on 26th August.

«We are not afraid of anything because, after all, everything is being checked,» shrugs Galina, a neighbour of the deceased Levin. «The manure was taken away, the land treated. So we’re all calm.»

In the opposite yard, a man is smoking with a frown. It seems that he doesn’t agree with Galina: «How can you be sure? God knows what will happen now! Will the infection go further or not...»

«It won’t come to me, I have no cattle,» says his neighbour, waving light-heartedly. «I’m a taiga-dweller. The others here are prairie folk, and I’m from the taiga,» he adds proudly.

Meanwhile, vaccination is going on actively on the premises of a private business. It is already the second day of inoculations for people working in direct contact with animals: 120 of them are here.

Farm owner Ivan Kuznetsov, already inoculated, appears in the doorway. His 90 head of cattle were vaccinated two days ago, despite the fact that his farm is located 18 kilometres from Druzhba. Now it’s his workers’ turn.

«Of course there are some concerns. There should be — it’s a scary disease,» he remarks. «Maybe people aren’t going to buy meat now. We’ve already had a call from Barnaul, asking if it’s safe to buy our grain and if we have a serious problem.»

Ivan does not look scared, but it’s obvious that something is bothering him. Something that doesn’t concern grain or meat.

«I’m not speaking in parables, this happened yesterday!» eagerly exclaims the man. «My jeep broke down.»

«I phone my friend, say: ’Yuri, I need to come over to your place...’ He says: ’Don’t come round! I won’t even shake your hand.’»

Then, with a sigh, he justifies Yuri’s reaction: «What can you do? The man is concerned for the lives of his family. That’s why he’s playing it safe — each to his own. Look, they’ve killed all the stray dogs around here. And not just dogs! I’ve seen people carrying live cats in cellophane bags. To be shot.»

The «shooting» is carried out with anaesthetic darts. That doesn’t make it any easier for the pets’ owners, though. Ivan, one of the first settlers in Druzhba, announces: «If they want to shoot my dog, I’ll put it here,» loudly slapping his hand on his chest, «then say, ’Shoot!’»

At this moment Daniel Bessarabov, Vice-Governor of the Altai Krai, leaves the building: a private meeting has just ended on the second floor of the «vaccination point».

«The epidemiological situation is stable,» he assures. «It’s very important that no more infected have been identified in the last 24 hours. Thirteen people are still in the Biysk infectious disease ward. Five have been diagnosed with anthrax, of which only two have been laboratory-confirmed. I’d like to mention that these people were in direct contact with infected animals. We found that the other eight had also been in contact and admitted them to hospital too. We check on their condition every hour. Actually, they’re already asking to go home; they all say that they’re fine. But we have decided to continue monitoring for now. Additionally, no infected animals have been found in the villages of Druzhba and Marushka within the last four days.»

«What about the economic condition of the region?» enquire the gathered journalists.

Bessarabov, frowning, answers shortly and strictly: «At the moment, our main concern is human health.»

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And heads to his car. A planned farmyard inspection and conversations with residents are in store for him soon. The vaccination process is still continuing. The curious and interested crowd disperses. Farmer Ivan Kuznetsov is smoking on the porch and pensively gazes at a dog’s tail, which is nimbly disappearing among the bushes.

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