VIENNA, Austria -- Ukrainian presidential hopeful Viktor A. Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, most likely intentionally, doctors in Vienna who have been struggling to diagnose his mystery illness confirmed yesterday.
Yushchenko, a pro-Western opposition leader engaged in a bitter presidential contest, has alleged since suddenly falling ill in September that he was poisoned in an assassination attempt intended to eliminate a key critic of Ukraine's government.
Authorities have denied the charge, and some government supporters have ridiculed it.
Michael Zimpfer, director of the private Rudolfinerhaus clinic, which has been treating Yushchenko, said tests concluded in the past 24 hours prove that dioxin caused the illness that has disfigured the Ukrainian candidate's face.
"There is no doubt about the fact that Mr. Yushchenko's disease has been caused by dioxin poisoning," he told reporters at a news conference at the clinic. The doctors, Zimpfer said, "suspect the involvement of an external party" and think that the dioxin was given orally.
"The criminal investigation does not fall within our purview," he added.
The diagnosis was based on clinical observations, skin changes, and findings from tissue and blood samples, he said.
Asked whether he had reported his findings to the Ukrainian authorities, Zimpfer replied that Austrian justice officials have been in direct contact with Ukraine since Yushchenko's second hospitalization in late September.
Yushchenko fell sick Sept. 6, the day after having late-night food and drinks with the head of the Security Service of Ukraine, among other people. Yushchenko's wife, Kateryna Chumachenko, said she noticed a strange taste on his lips when she kissed him that night. "I tasted some medicine on his breath, on his lips," she said in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America. "And I asked him about it. He brushed it away, saying, 'There is nothing.'"
Yushchenko has suffered problems that affected several internal organs and caused severe back pain, according to his doctors.
The most visible symptom has been disfigurement of his face with pockmarks, cysts and darkened areas. In recent weeks, medical experts in various countries have said the facial condition appeared to be chloracne, which is associated with dioxin poisoning.
The explosive allegation of attempted murder, now backed by fresh medical evidence, could have an unpredictable effect on a repeat presidential runoff election pitting Yushchenko against Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych on Dec. 26.
The new vote was set after the Supreme Court ruled the Nov. 21 balloting, narrowly won by Yanukovych, invalid because of fraud.
Yushchenko supporters, however, already believed he had been poisoned, and it was not immediately clear how many Yanukovych backers would be willing to believe the Vienna doctors.
Anxiety over revote
Some people in the opposition camp remained nervous about whether the Dec. 26 balloting would take place.
Yesterday's announcement potentially raised the stakes by increasing the possibility that if the poisoning were an assassination attempt, those responsible might be caught and punished under a Yushchenko presidency.
"I don't want all of us to have the impression that the Yanukovych campaign and Yanukovych himself have relaxed and stopped fighting," Yulia Tymoshenko, a key opposition leader, said yesterday at a news conference in Kiev, the capital. "They will try everything for the presidential elections not to happen or not to have a result."
Under Ukrainian law, if a presidential election is so flawed that it is impossible to determine the result, it is possible for the incumbent to remain in power while new balloting is organized.
'I know nothing'
Speaking to a rally in the eastern city of Luhansk before the Vienna announcement, Yanukovych expressed sympathy for Yushchenko.
"He really is a sick person," Yanukovych replied. "I had a little talk with him concerning this topic. I'm sorry for him as a person. I wish him to get well soon. As for the reasons, I know nothing. Let the specialists work on that."
Yanukovych's campaign manager, Taras Chornovyl, has rejected any possibility that the prime minister was involved in the alleged poisoning. There is "no logic in such an accusation," he said.
Yushchenko checked into the Vienna clinic Sept. 10, at which point, according to Zimpfer, he had been ill for five days.
The effects of dioxin poisoning are swift; the substance is rapidly absorbed by the body, Zimpfer said. Yushchenko's dioxin levels in blood and tissue samples, taken in September but only recently tested specifically for that substance, were at least 1,000 times higher than normal, a level Zimpfer said required a dose of just milligrams.
"It would have been easy to put it in a cream soup, for example," he said.
Zimpfer said that Yushchenko's dioxin levels have returned to normal and that he probably would leave the clinic today or tomorrow.
Zimpfer said the doctors did not know for sure whether Yushchenko had been poisoned by one substance or by a combination of substances.
"It is possible that we only found the dioxin," he said. Damage to the digestive system suggested that the poison had been ingested orally, he said.
In a statement Oct. 7 to Ukraine's parliament, Volodymyr Sivkovych, chairman of an ad hoc commission that looked into Yushchenko's illness, reported on the opposition leader's activities the day before he became ill.
On the evening of Sept. 5, Yushchenko had dinner at the summer house of a businessman, where sushi was served that had not been refrigerated for more than three hours, Sivkovych said.
From late that evening until 2 a.m. the next day, "Yushchenko was visiting the summer house of Volodymyr Satsyuk, the first deputy chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine," he said.
The security service head, Ihor Smeshko, was also present, he said. The commission understood that this meeting was held at the request of a Yushchenko associate, he said.
"Food was served on common plates, and drinks were served ... from bottles that were uncorked in the presence of the company," Sivkovych reported. "Yushchenko started to complain of splitting headaches early on Sept. 6."
Nikolai Korpan, the doctor who oversaw Yushchenko's treatment, said no "functional damage" would remain as a result of the dioxin exposure. But the doctors said that Yushchenko's facial disfigurement would remain for a long time as follow-up treatments continue.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
What dioxins are and how they affect human beings:
Dioxins are a group of chemicals produced as byproducts from factories that use chlorine or from incinerators. They are widespread in the environment, and low doses accumulate in the body, mostly through food.
The most hazardous dioxin is tetrachlorodibenzoparadioxin, or TCDD, an ingredient of Agent Orange, which was linked to health problems in Vietnam veterans and local villagers exposed to it. Chronic exposure is believed to multiply the risk of several cancers and to increase the chance of immune system disorders and liver problems.
Most of what is known about the health effects of acute doses comes from studies on animals.
Chloracne - an adult form of the skin condition - is the most widely recognized and consistently noted effect of high-dose exposure in humans. It can disappear after the poison wears off, or it can persist for many years. It is not a health hazard.
Other effects from high dioxin doses in humans include decreased liver function, an enlarged liver and slight increase in blood fats, though both effects tend to be mild and short-lived. Doctors said dioxin levels in Viktor A. Yushchenko's liver have returned to normal, and he is expected to be released from the hospital in the next few days.
Dioxin poisoning can also increase the risk of diabetes.