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Czech Republic: Delayed sewer repair causes hepatitis in Romani neighborhood

Ostrava, 25.11.2011 20:04, (ROMEA)

An epidemic of hepatitis has been spreading since the summer among the residents of Přednádraží street in the Přívoz quarter of Ostrava, the third-largest city in the Czech Republic. While the infection has most probably been prevented from spreading further, authorities investigating the source of the disease discovered the neighborhood sewer was not operating properly. News server iDNES.cz reports that repair of the sewer has been delayed by disputes between city hall and the private company that owns the land under which the blocked portion of the pipes is located.

The Moravian-Silesian Region is in the unflattering position of having the country's highest hepatitis rates. Public health inspectors say the greatest problem this year occurred in Ostrava-Přívoz. The epidemic broke out there in July and ended in October. A total of 35 people, most of them Romani children, fell ill.

The incubation period for the disease lasts 50 days and has not yet ended. "We announced extraordinary vaccinations and between 17 October and 4 November we inoculated most of the 300 pupils and staff of the Christian Elementary School and the Přemysl Pitter nursery school against hepatitis A. Those who couldn't be vaccinated during that period should gradually be inoculated in future as well," said Irena Martinková, head of the Disease Control Department of the Regional Hygiene Station in Ostrava.

Soňa Tarhoviská, director of a school in which quarantine measures were finally lifted this week, is grateful for the free vaccinations. "Pregnant women come here - mothers of young children, mothers with pregnant daughters, some of our teachers are pregnant as well. They were all afraid of infection, because hepatitis has been ailing this community for three years now. Year before last we had to cancel our school camping trip because of it," she said.

Tarhoviská says the spread of both head lice and hepatitis are linked to the unsuitable conditions in which Romani families are currently living. "In the privately-owned apartment buildings they are paying high rents, maybe as much as CZK 11 000 for two rooms, even though they have to heat them with coal-burning stoves and have problems with electricity and sewerage. The landlords just collect the money and invest nothing into improvements," the school director says, adding that 36 of her pupils have already emigrated abroad. The most recent family to leave took their three children this week to live with relatives who have found decent housing conditions and work in another country.

The local council of the Moravská Ostrava municipality, which manages one of the buildings in Přednádraží street, is having a hard time addressing the situation. It seems clear the municipality will have to move the residents elsewhere.

"The sewers in Přednádraží street are not working. When people try to flush the toilets, they back up. One of those buildings belongs to us, while another eight belong to a private firm. Unfortunately, for a long time it was not clear to whom the sewer belongs, and it is still not clear who will repair it. That is why we will have to move out all nine of the families living in the unsuitable property that we own. We are looking for available apartments for them now," said Petra Bernfeldová, the Vice-Mayor of Moravská Ostrava and Přívoz municipality.

The town hall wanted to inspect the state of the sewer, which was not registered as belonging to anyone, but the Ostravská opravna a strojírna firm (Ostrava Repair and Engineering), which owns the land where the afflicted part of the piping is located, reportedly refused to let professional inspectors onto the property. The firm then claimed ownership of the sewer, but refused to pay to repair it. "The firm's approach to this problem is irresponsible," the Vice-Mayor says.

Ladislav Martinek, the firm's executive head, defends the company against that charge. "We are sorry that hepatitis is spreading in our precincts, but we never even suspected that sewer lines were running beneath the yard of a property we privatized several years ago. No one has concluded a contract with us regarding those sewer lines, and unlike Ostrava Waterworks and Sewerage (Ostravské vodárny a kanalizace), we have not been paid one crown to service them. Why should we have to cover the cost of the repair now?" Martinek asks.

The executive makes no secret of the fact that the firm has different plans for the land. "We don't want to dig up the tracks there. Instead of repairing several hundreds of meters of backed-up sewer line, the town could build a new, much shorter connection to Palacký street near here. We have no problem with letting them onto our land," he said.

The district council is not considering that option. The situation must be addressed rapidly. The town hall has already initiated administrative proceedings against both the district and the firm to whom the sewer belongs. "The environmental protection department will demand the owner bring the sewer into proper working order. They have to decide by 20 January. The department will do its best to accelerate the proceedings, but it depends on how many objections the firm raises," town spokesperson Andrea Vojkovská said.

Gwendolyn Albert, iDNES.cz, translated by Gwendolyn Albertd
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