Mumps is Latvia's latest health scare

  • 2001-04-05
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Another bout of sickness has hit Latvia, badly affecting schools, police training facilities and an army base. The current mumps outbreak is not as worrying as the country's ongoing diphtheria problem, say doctors, but it again highlights poor living conditions in some institutions.

There were 2,474 cases of mumps in Latvia in January and February, said Aija Grickevica, a senior doctor at the National Environmental Health Center. Around half of these were in the 12 to 17 age range but 600 were in the 18 to 29 age range. Statistics for March may reveal a further 1,000 cases, said the center. In older people the illness can produce serious health complications.

"We're taking special measures to tackle this problem," said Grickevica. Doctors are vaccinating children and teenagers who missed booster vaccinations for 7-year-olds, which only began in 1997. People who have come into contact with those suffering from mumps are also being vaccinated.

The illness is evenly spread across the country, said Inga Prizevaite, the center's press secretary. Institutions housing large numbers of people are particularly at risk. "On average two or three children in each class have mumps," she said.

Of concern in the older age range are soldiers at the Aluksne army base - where 20 have been hospitalized - and students at Riga Police Academy, where 50 are afflicted. All army units have been vaccinated, according to a spokesman at the National Armed Forces Center, but the situation at the police academy appears more serious. The academy only has 1,000 mumps vaccines, insufficient for its 3,700 students, said Andrejs Filipovs, the academy's press secretary. "This is a big problem. We don't have money for more vaccines," he said.

Poor housing is exacerbating the problem, he added. "The rooms are very bad. At one college there are 100 students living in each room. There are too few baths and toilets for so many people."

More than 1,000 students at the academy contracted a streptobacicllus infection last October.

Latvian health officials are continuing to struggle against diphtheria, which the World Health Organization says is one of the three most serious health threats in the region, along with AIDS and tuberculosis. In 1999, 10 people died of the disease in Latvia. The number of cases grew sharply in 2000 although final statistics are not yet available. In September the problem was highlighted when some 120 students and employees at the National Defense Academy contracted diphtheria.

The World Health Organization recommends that 90 percent of the population should be vaccinated against the disease to bring it under control. But the take-up rate for vaccinations has been low, even though they are free, said Prizevaite.

"Doctors still have a lot of work to do to inform people of the problem. People should be vaccinated every 10 years. There has been more demand for encephalitis vaccinations, even though they are not free."

Those at the National Defense Academy whose cardiac and nervous systems were permanently damaged were given 50 lats ($79) when they were discharged from service. Last week Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis dismissed the academy's rector, Ilmars Viksna, for his handling of the affair. Kristovskis has now promised the students state assistance in gaining civilian education, and promised them employment in the country's defense institutions.

Due to successful immunization programs Estonia and Lithuania have been free of diphtheria in recent years.