Authorities in Kazakhstan are scrambling to reassure the public that they have an outbreak of meningitis under control amid fresh reports of people succumbing to the disease.
Health Minister Yelzhan Birtanov said on June 4 at a press conference that that there was no grounds for panic. He also insisted that there was no need to introduce a quarantine regime or to implement an “ineffective and costly” vaccination program.
Unofficial reports about swift deaths from meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane of the brain or spinal cord typically caused by an infection, have been spreading like wildfire over social messaging apps. Exchange of information has sometimes been accompanied by allegations that that the authorities are hiding the scale of the outbreak.
As anxiety has mounted, drugstores in large cities, like Almaty, have sold out of surgical masks as people seek to protect themselves.
Birtanov warned against gossip-mongering and said that prosecutors would eventually investigate who was spreading alarm via messaging apps like WhatsApp.
In the meantime, however, official sources of information have been notably scant. From the start of the year through to the end of May, the Health Ministry website’s only reference to meningitis was an infographic about how to detect the disease.
And then Birtanov made a statement on June 1 that was anything but reassuring. He advised people to refrain from going to public places or observing the fast during Ramadan unless absolutely necessary. The fast observed during the Islamic holy month, which began on May 17 and lasts 29 days, could weaken people’s immune system, he cautioned.
Some of the anguishing tales emerging from the outbreak threaten to sow more discontent.
One Almaty resident, Aida Akhmetova, lost a five-year old son and a 19-year-old daughter-in-law to meningitis in the space of one night, according to a report by Tengri News. She told reporters, sobbing, that when she took her son to the hospital, the place was completely jam-packed and that they had to wait in the car for 30 minutes. By the time the child had been admitted to intensive care, he had already died.
"Where is the vaccine and why is it so expensive? Why can’t everyone afford it? What about simple people who earn just 60,000 tenge ($200) and who have several children?” she asked.
The meningitis vaccine is indeed not inexpensive by local standards. In Astana, the cost of a vaccination is around 28,000 tenge ($85). In Almaty, it is around 22,500 tenge ($70). Average monthly salaries are around $500. And the shots are not immediately available at clinics and waiting lists are long and, seemingly, growing by the day.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.