65494 5/25/2006 15:51 06BUCHAREST869 Embassy Bucharest CONFIDENTIAL 06BUCHAREST811|06BUCHAREST834|06BUCHAREST843|06BUCHAREST847|06BUCHAREST869 VZCZCXRO7826 OO RUEHDBU RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR DE RUEHBM #0869/01 1451551 ZNY CCCCC ZZH O 251551Z MAY 06 FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4502 INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 BUCHAREST 000869
STATE FOR EUR/NCE - WSILKWORTH AND CA/OCS/ACS-SSCHMIERER STATE PASS TO DEPT OF AGRICULTURE NSC FOR DAMON WILSON
E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/25/2016 TAGS: KFLU, TBIO, PREL, EAID, CASC, WHO, RO SUBJECT: AVIAN INFLUENZA UPDATE IN BUCHAREST - CONFUSION AND RECRIMINATION
REF: A. A) BUCHAREST 847 B. B) BUCHAREST 843 C. C) BUCHAREST 834 D. D) BUCHAREST 811
Classified By: DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION MARK TAPLIN, REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D).
1. (C) Avian Influenza (AI) has been confirmed in two neighborhoods within the city limits of Bucharest, making Romania's largest city the first European capital hit by the H5N1 virus. The virus was discovered in dead chickens raised in backyards of residents living in low-income neighborhoods on the outskirts of Bucharest. Authorities implemented a limited quarantine around the affected zones, restricting both transit of motor vehicles and pedestrian traffic. Quarantines throughout Romania were lifted on May 25, although sanitary controls continue. Local politicians have added to the confusion, publicly casting doubt on the presence of bird flu. The current crisis is exacerbating tensions in the ruling coalition, with President Basescu criticizing Prime Minister Tariceanu and Minister of Agriculture Flutur of poor leadership and a failure to identify the cause of the outbreak. Basescu's own efforts to involve the Romanian intelligence service backfired when the service bizarrely attributed the crisis to poultry imports from Hungary and Slovakia. End summary.
BUCHAREST CASES CONFIRMED - CONFUSION ABOUNDS
2. (SBU) On May 22, veterinary authorities confirmed the presence of H5N1 in sector 2, in the northeastern outskirts of Bucharest. Following an uproar from quarantined residents, the mayor of sector 2, Neculai Ontanu, asserted that initial tests had been mishandled and questioned the presence of H5N1. Residents took the opportunity to complain of a lack of running water, sewage and paved roads in their neighborhood of the capital. Ontanu unilaterally lifted the full quarantine after authorities refused to retest the infected chicken. Residents were allowed to depart after passing through screening disinfection centers. The affected area within sector 2 had an estimated 400 households raising 4,000 chickens.
3. (SBU) Authorities confirmed a second case of H5N1 in sector 4 of Bucharest on May 23 and instituted an initial quarantine of 40 streets around the area. The quarantine was later reduced to four streets encompassing 60 households after other areas were cleared and disinfected and domestic fowl was culled in 80 households. Residents in sector 4 responded boisterously, protesting that they would lose their jobs if they were not allowed to leave the quarantine zone. The two locations in sectors 2 and 4 were low-income neighborhoods where many residents raise chickens in their backyards.
4. (SBU) In sector 2, the Directorate of Public Health (DSP) deployed a 47-member team to carry out inspections, surveillance, and identification of those who may have come in contact with sick birds. In sector 4, DSP deployed a team of 57 to do the same. All DSP team members were administered Tamiflu as a preventative measure. The DSP worked with local officials to implement the quarantine, cull all birds, disinfect the area, provide health and sanitary information, and monitor the health of the residents. Ambulances have been stationed near the infected sites as a precautionary measure. The Bucharest Prefecture reports that nearly 500 police officers are patrolling the affected zones, enforcing restrictions and assisting local residents. Two bird flu hotlines have been established in Bucharest and are reportedly available 24 hours a day.
5. (U) Authorities are investigating a third case, this time in sector 5, where rapid tests have indicated H5N1 in a dead chicken. The new location surrounding Nufarul Galben Street is only a few blocks from the sector 4 site, and also consists of small homes with backyard poultry surrounded by densely populated block apartments. The two zones are separated by the main road leading from Bucharest to Bulgaria, though travel on the road has not yet been affected. Authorities instituted protective measures in the immediate vicinity of the outbreak.
6. (U) On May 25, the Health Ministry announced that quarantines have been lifted throughout the country, allowing
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people to move freely in the affected areas. Disinfection and culling activities will continue. The Health Ministry said that this decision was taken after all 15 human cases under observation for bird-flu were confirmed negative.
EMBASSY OPERATIONS NOT YET AFFECTED
7. (U) The impact on the US Embassy has been minimal. Traffic in the center of Bucharest remains unchanged and all employees have been able to report to work as normal. The proximity of the birds and the overwhelming media attention has prompted many inquires from embassy staff and dependents. The Embassy established an AI working group last October that continues to keep the community informed on the status of the disease in Bucharest and other infected areas of the country, as well as provide information on preventative and preparedness measures. The mission is conducting a crisis management exercise on May 25-26 that will assist in post preparation.
SITUATION IMPROVING IN REGIONS
8. (SBU) The Ministry of Agriculture reports that the total number of affected sites countrywide stands at 44, with the largest amount in Brasov County where the outbreak is believed to have originated. The Ministry reports that 38 of the 44 cases have been eliminated through isolation, culling, and disinfection procedures, though monitoring will continue for several weeks. Efforts continue to bring the six remaining cases under control.
9. (SBU) Authorities have released further information regarding the two poultry farms in Brasov County believed to be the epicenter of the current outbreak. According to reports, the outbreak may have begun as early as March, when birds began to die in the thousands on the farms. Administrators ordered the birds buried to avoid destruction of the entire flock. It remains to be seen how such actions avoided scrutiny by the Veterinarian Authority for over one month.
GOVERNMENT EFFORT STRAPPED FOR CASH
10. (U) Authorities report having sufficient personal protective equipment, supplies, disinfectant, and manpower to combat the current crisis. However, the GOR's emergency response budget is close to being depleted and the ability to react to further outbreaks is uncertain. The Ministry of Agriculture reports that it paid out over USD 3.8 million in compensation for euthanized birds between October 2005 and April 2006. It is expected that this latest outbreak will cost the Ministry an additional one million USD in compensation expenses. Authorities report that no compensation will be paid to commercial farms that have violated biosafety regulations or other commercial laws. The Ministry of Agriculture has requested an additional 14 million USD from the national budget to pay compensation for individuals suffering future losses as a result of the bird flu virus.
POLITICS AND RECRIMINATIONS
11. (SBU) Recriminations continue to fly at the political level, with President Basescu accusing Prime Minister Tariceanu and Minister of Agriculture Flutur of mishandling the crisis and of failing to identify the root cause of the outbreak. Following the President's criticism of the government effort, Tariceanu assumed "personal" control of the inter-agency task force previously led by Flutur. One presidential salvo appears to have misfired when, over the weekend, Basescu called on the national intelligence service (SRI) to investigate the causes of the outbreak centered in Brasov. The SRI report attributing the outbreak to imported poultry from Slovakia and Hungary, made public on May 23, was roundly dismissed, with Tariceanu stating that there was absolutely no evidence to support it. Basescu himself declared his "total disappointment" in the report, adding that it reflected "a type of collusion between local authorities and the SRI unit in Brasov." The head of the Brasov branch of the SRI, Brigadier General Maricel Gavrila, was dismissed on May 24.
12. (SBU) Basescu then appeared at a government meeting (despite his recent back surgery), and in front of TV cameras called on the Prime Minister to inform the public within 24 hours of the roots of the current crisis. Basescu stated that, "unfortunately, the major objective in combating the
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avian flu situation was not to stop the phenomenon and eradicate it, but to toss responsibility from one institution to another." He added that, "if the current model of action continues, the government will lose all credibility."
13. (SBU) Tariceanu's Liberal Party (PNL) fired back, with PNL Vice President Dan Rusanu accusing the President of overstepping his constitutional powers. Basescu, he complained, is constantly meddling in the Government's affairs, assigning tasks and demanding explanations from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, who are not subordinate to the Presidency. The opposition Social Democrats (PSD) did not fail to capitalize on the latest brouhaha in the governing coalition, with party leader Mircea Geoana calling for everyone involved in the bird flu crisis in Romania to be held politically and criminally liable. He pointedly underlined that this would include the President.
14. (C) The stakes are significant in this latest crisis, with the European Union and world health officials closely monitoring Romania's ability to control the spread of AI with some semblance of order. While Minister of Agriculture Flutur has come under attack for this sudden flare-up of AI cases, most experts believe the GOR's response, particularly outside of Bucharest, has been rapid, effective and professional. However, having AI appear on the ground in several major urban centers has been a wake-up call for the Romanian public, and politicians of many stripes are finding it an occasion to pursue their own agendas, probably at the expense of a coherent public health response. Basescu's interventions, in particular, seem to have contributed to public confusion and a sense of crisis. We will look for opportunities to reinforce with our Romanian interlocutors the importance of putting science and safety before political brinkmanship. End Comment. TAUBMAN