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Monday, 17 September, 2001, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Estonian vodka poisonings kill 58
Paramedics transfer a victim to hospital in Tallinn
The most serious cases were airlifted to the capital, Tallinn
An outbreak of poisoning caused by bootleg vodka in Estonia has now claimed 58 lives and left another 10 fighting for survival.


By mid-day there was nothing wrong, but by the evening I started seeing blue rings

Juri, a survivor
The drink was laced with methanol, a toxic alcohol used in industry, and was on sale at less than half the price of legal alcohol.

The first cases began appearing in the seaside resort of Parnu on 9 September, but a second wave hit the neighbouring county of Laane three days later.

Nearly 70 people have been treated and released from hospital.

Map of Estonia
Police have detained 12 suspects who face charges of unintentional homicide, and a possible three-year jail term.

One is suspected of selling 10 200-litre containers of the lethal drink to illicit alcohol peddlers.

One victim, a sawmill worker called Juri now recovering in a Parnu hospital, said he began suffering poisoning symptoms only hours after drinking the hooch.

"By mid-day there was nothing wrong, but by the evening I started seeing blue rings. And that was it," he said.

Estonia's average monthly wage is the equivalent of just $329, which makes cheap illegal alcohol sold in re-filled plastic drinks bottles an attractive option.

Disgrace

Juri said he had often bought illicit vodka in the past to save money, but after nine deaths in his village alone he vowed he would not do so again.

Estonian President Lennart Meri
President Meri: Alcoholism is a Soviet legacy

Last year almost one in five Estonian adults bought illegally distilled alcohol, according to Estonia's Market Research Institute.

In doing so, they spent the equivalent of $9.6m, depriving state coffers of valuable tax revenue.

According to other estimates, illegal alcohol accounts for between 40% and 60% of all alcohol sales in Estonia, a country likely to gain EU membership in 2004.

The Estonian President, Lennart Meri, has called the mass poisoning a national disgrace.

"This is the legacy of the Soviet-era way of living and our shame," he said.

Consumption of bootleg alcohol is most common in the countryside, where there is widespread poverty and unemployment.

"We have met these kinds of poisonings before, but not on this scale," said Urmas Sule, head doctor at Parnu Hospital.

See also:

12 Sep 01 | Europe
Bootleg vodka kills 44 in Estonia
17 Aug 01 | Europe
Russia drink death toll soars
11 Oct 00 | Americas
Tainted alcohol kills over 100
17 Nov 00 | Africa
Kenyan drinkers dice with death
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Estonia
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