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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Rumors in the Far East Spread Like Bacteria




On Tuesday, children returning from school noticed something unusual outside my apartment. Two ambulances were parked in front of the building, and a doctor was observed in the hallway wearing a surgeon's mask. In the elevator, which normally smells merely of Bulgarian tobacco and vodka-enhanced urine, one could detect the odor of chlorine.


That evening, the neighbor knocked on the door. "Did you hear about the old man upstairs? He died. They think it was cholera. The doctors said to be careful." Afraid I wasn't getting it, he told my girlfriend Nonna's kid, Sergei, who was standing in the doorway with me, "Translate it."


I assured him I understood. But what was one supposed to do while waiting for the scourge of Third World drinking water to sweep us away? Evacuate the building? Quarantine ourselves in a leper colony until the crisis passes?


"You're supposed to wash your hands a lot."


The advice seemed somehow deficient. Thirteen cases of cholera have been reported in the Far East in the past month, and news broadcasts have been filled with images of doctors in germ warfare suits inspecting buses from China, where the outbreak originated. Most recently, some bums came down with the disease a few weeks ago after they gathered rotten food at the garbage dump in the Gornostoi region.


I did a quick search on the Internet, where I learned, distressingly, that in severe cases the intestinal disease can kill its victims within hours due to dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea. To avoid it, however, you must pretty much do what I already do: Cook your food, peel your fruit, boil your water, and resist the urge to lick anyone's shoes.


But my hopes of observing life from the ground zero in the world's next medical hot zone were dashed Wednesday. One of our newspaper's reporters, Anatoly Medetsky, checked up on the rumor, and Valentina Voronok, deputy chief of the Regional Sanitary and Epidemiological Monitoring Center, told him the law requires doctors to report any cholera cases. "Nothing like this happened," she said. "We haven't registered any cholera deaths."


Anatoly even phoned Sergei, to make sure I had understood the neighbor correctly. After all, I tend to speak a kind of Russian that the Lone Ranger's sidekick Tonto might have employed ("Kimosabe no want make big cholera barf, da?"). But Sergei confirmed the version I had heard.


So what happened? Has the news failed to reach the epidemiological center? Or are rumors running rampant among people already jittery about the disasters in Moscow?


I suspect the latter. But I'm playing it safe. Until I get to the bottom of this, I am turning down any invitations to grab lunch at the dump.