Sunday, December 12, 2004

Whatever You Do, Don't Order the Schlagoberssuppe 

Just in case you were still wondering: tests have confirmed that reform candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who will face Kremlin favorite Viktor Yanukovych in a Dec. 26 runoff for the presidency of the Ukraine, was, in fact, poisoned:

There is "no doubt" that Yushchenko's disease "has been caused by a case of poisoning by dioxin," Dr. Michael Zimpfer, the head of the Rudolfinerhaus hospital, said at a news conference in Vienna on Saturday. He said that Yushchenko's blood dioxin level was "more than 1,000 times" the upper limits of normal and that his initial severe abdominal pain suggested that he had eaten the poison.

"We have proved the source of his problem, and we clearly suspect third-party involvement," Dr. Zimpfer added in a subsequent interview. But he said law-enforcement authorities would have to determine when and how the poisoning occurred.

Yushchenko has long insisted that he had been poisoned, and on Friday, he repeated his suspicions of the motive, saying: "It is my growing conviction that what happened to me was an act of political reprisal against a politician in opposition. The aim, naturally, was to kill me."

His opponents have ridiculed such claims, saying that the once telegenic candidate had been stricken by bad sushi or too much drink . . . .

But Yushchenko has always remained vague on the topic of who tried to poison him. He fell ill after having dinner on Sept. 5 with the head of Ukraine's successor to the K.G.B., Gen. Ihor P. Smeshko.

General Smeshko has acknowledged meeting Yushchenko but dismissed the notion that he might have been involved in poisoning him, as many of Mr. Yushchenko's supporters say they suspect. Yushchenko's wife, a Ukrainian-American, said this week that when she kissed him after he returned from the dinner, she smelled some kind of medicine on this breath, which she now believed to be the poison.

Dioxins are chemical by-products of chlorine; the most hazardous type of dioxin is an ingredient of Agent Orange. Disfiguring chloracne (see the "after" photo above), one of the milder symptoms of dioxin poisoining, poses no real health threat, although it can sometimes persist for years. Until recently, it was thought to be untraceable:
"Until recently, there has been no (blood) testing available" for dioxin, Zimpfer said. "This may be one of the reasons that this kind of poisoning, if it was a criminal act, was chosen."
Our distinguished colleague Alex, a/k/a the Yorkshire Ranter, has been following the German-language coverage in Vienna's Der Standard, and has managed to snuffle out a few details that we have yet to see in the U.S. press:
Interestingly, though, the medical director of the clinic (Lothar Wicke) is reported to have resigned. Apparently he received death threats during Yushchenko's treatment and was offered police protection, but the article strongly implies that the resignation was in some way connected with the confirmation and then non-confirmation of the diagnosis earlier in the week. All concerned are denying this, and Wicke gave overwork as the reason for his departure.
And there's this:
Damage to his intestines suggested that the poison was administered by mouth. (In a Viennese touch, the good doctor speculated that the dioxin could have easily been concealed in a bowl of Schlagoberssuppe.)

According to Dr. Zimpfer, the diagnosis had been especially difficult due to the poison being consumed orally rather than inhaled - he states that very few cases of oral dioxin poisoning are known (can anyone with requisite expertise support or criticise this?) and that it led to an entirely different presentation of the disease (Krankheitsbild).

The comments threads at Der Standard are running wild about this, with a mixture of crazed conspiracy theories about obscure sects whose colour is - orange! - and withering sarcasm directed at them. Perhaps the least crazed version is that he might have taken the dioxin himself in order to gain sympathy. The best argument against this is probably the long term effect of the stuff on your system - apart from the galloping acne (now there's a phrase you don't often hear), the symptoms can include deformities, cancer, immune system deficiency, sterility, birth defects if that is not the case, as well as radical changes in your balance of hormones. It's one of those disturbing pathologies that can affect literally any part of your body.
Alex also links to a couple of possibly-related items: the downright bizarre tale of Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin, who vanished in February and surfaced in London a few days later, claiming he had been drugged by the secret services and forced to perform in a "compromising" videotape shot by "horrible perverts." Less entertaining is the first-person account of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was poisoned en route to the school siege in Beslan (a story we covered back in September).

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