Bird flu rumor sparks nationwide panic

Najla Moussa
8 Min Read

CAIRO: Approximately two hours after a rumor that bird flu was found in the Nile River raged through the country, Metro supermarkets throughout Cairo ran out of water.

The rumor, which sparked a national frenzy, was leaked through a number of media and telecommunication outlets; namely, Sabah Al Kheir Ya Masr, a radio station, El Akhbar news channel and SMS’s, all of which announced that people were throwing what they suspected to be contaminated birds into the Nile, thus infecting the water.

To halt the nation’s growing hysteria, a number of ministers and officials appeared on Al Akhbar news channel, one of the original culprits, flatly denying the existence of the virus in the water and repeatedly requesting that the public rebuff the rumors.

“There is nothing in the water at all, it’s just a rumor said Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, Dr. Mahmoud Abd El-Halim Abou Zeid.

The Minister of Information, Anas Ahmed Nabih El-Fiky, appeared on Al Akhbar, where he vehemently denied the rumor, while Minister of Health and Population, Dr. Hatem Mostafa El-Gabaly, phoned in to the station where he proceeded to publicly denounce the rumor, as well as stating that 90 percent of bird flu incidents occur in places where people breed birds in their homes. The Minister of Finance also announced that he has received reassurance from the Minister of Irrigation that the rumors are completely false.

“This is a complete rumor, as the ministers of health, information and agriculture announced on television, Dr. Abd El Rahman Shaheen, media consultant to the Ministry of Health and Population, tells The Daily Star Egypt. “All the organizations and government involved in this, as well as the test that we have done, confirm that the Nile water is not contaminated.

“The virus cannot travel through water, said Mohammed Abd El Zahir, president of the Drinking Water Company of Cairo, in a televised telephone interview on El Akhbar news station.

According to El Zahir, there are 13 water stations throughout the country and every hour of every day, the company takes a sample of water and tests it against bird flu and other viruses before it reaches cleaning filters.

“We have always done this, even before the bird flu outbreak said El Zahir. “However, after bird flu was found in Egypt, we now take a sample and test the water every half an hour, and up until this very moment that I’m speaking to you, nothing is wrong with the Nile water.

Once the company has checked the sample, the Ministry of Irrigation and the Ministry of Health then take the sample and each retests it.

While the root of the rumor is unclear, Dr. Zoheir Halaj, Egyptian World Health Organization (WHO) representative, speculates that it began with people telling each other that some people are throwing birds in the Nile.

However, El-Gabaly, minister of health, has other ideas. According to his televised appearance on Al Akhbar, the minister believes that the rumors were started by people who’s financial investments could increase due to such rumors. He also added that such rumors undermine what the government has been doing to combat bird flu.

“People have been throwing things in the Nile for centuries, said Halaj to Al Akhbar, when asked what people should do if they were to see a dead bird floating in the Nile. “There is nothing new with that. And we always check and double check our water for contamination, because every second there are thousands of Egyptians drinking water and our top priority and concern is for the health of our citizens.

The Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs has asked the public to not throw any birds in the water. The ministry also announced that if individuals believe that they posses an infected bird, to call the authorities on a toll free line.

The Ministry of Agriculture is also doing its part, urgently requesting that those who breed live birds, including chickens, pigeons and turkey, to kill all their livestock promptly.

The country’s overzealous reaction to bird flu rumors is cause for concern to the government, which led various ministers and officials to seize the opportunity on television to caution against the dangers of rumors.

“There is no need for hysteria, said Halaj. “The government has been very transparent and responsive from the start.

“There is a real danger in spreading rumors, whether through text messages, phone calls, or media outlets, said El-Fiky. “The ministries have been working 25 hours on this, not sleeping. We also have international organizations working with us. I hope people will place their faith and trust in us.

The rumors cause the greatest harm, even more so than the disease itself, says Shaheen.

Taking the lead of the ministers and other officials, Shaheen states that bird flu is an animal disease and not a human one, and that the country so far has it under control.

The most important thing is to not have one single human case, and Egypt right now does not have a single human case of bird flu, he says.

When asked how the country plans to stop rumors from escalating following the aftermath of yesterday’s rumor, the authorities all named cooperation as the remedy. Incidentally, it’s the same treatment they believe will eradicate bird flu in Egypt.

We want the citizens to tell the citizens that they must cooperate with the government, and everything will be fine, said Halaj.

“We must all cooperate, and that’s how we will end this virus, said El-Fiky.

“All we can do is urge the people to cooperate with the government and organizations involved so we can put an end to this, adds Shaheen.

Aside from appearances on national television, the government also added phone lines for those requesting information or reporting incidents.

The Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Dr. Tarek Mohamed Kamel, announced yesterday that 60 lines were added for the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture for a period of 24 hours.

The National Democratic Party also announced that they have established five lines operating from 10:00 a.m., to 10:00 p.m., for information.

The private sector is also taking part in the national campaign, with MobiNil, Vodafone and Telecom Egypt establishing free lines for any inquires or further information.

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