When a simple glass of Vodka is fatal
Many victims of the alcohol poisoning scandal that has engulfed the Czech Republic and so far left 25 people dead are living with serious health problems ranging from blindness to coma.
While non-profit organizations work with the victims and the country comes to grips with a nationwide ban on spirits exceeding 20 percent in alcohol content, the spotlight is slowly turning on the culprits.
However, any investigation into the alcohol poisoning comes too late for those who now suddenly have to cope with a disability such as blindness after drinking spirits laced with methanol to stretch volume and increase profit margins.
Talking clocks, specially designed mobile phones and equipment that tells the user when a glass is full are just some of the gadgets that can help make a blind person's daily life easier.
"It's a difficult situation. Your entire life changes within five minutes," Vladimir Lipina told Czech radio.
Lipina from the coal-mining city in the Moravian-Silesian region, was one of the first poisoning victims to leave hospital.
Help group Tyfloservis has been working with people like Lipina for the last 21 years, offering them the opportunity to learn braille, take computer courses and to orientate themselves with the help of a cane.
Many blind victims are finding it hard to cope with the new reality, said Lucie Skrisovska, head of the Tyfloservis branch in Ostrava.
"Everyone finds their own way to cope with such a challenging situation," she explained.
Despite the unprecedented scale of the scandal it is not a new phenomenon for social workers in Ostrava.
"This was also a problem in recent years but the media interest in it was not as great," said Skrisovska. The issue only really gained attention when large numbers of people began to die.
The Czech police say they are hot on the heels of the poison alcohol bootleggers. However, the public debate has increasingly moved towards the question of how much the illegal trade in alcohol has been tolerated in the past.
Czech distillers say that the problem of black market alcohol has been known for a long time, with industry representatives pointing out that they raised the issue just two weeks before the latest poisonings.
According to estimates, black market sales of alcohol account for between 10 and 25 percent of the entire market. Last weekend on Czech television, chief of police Martin Cervicek released stunning figures showing that alone in the last two years police had investigated 156 crimes involving the illegal production of alcohol.
Investigators did not come across dangerous levels of the industrial alcohol methanol, he said.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek has been forced to defend the country's customs authorities in the wake of the alcohol poisoning deaths.
"I have to emphatically deny that the customs administration is responsible when a crook pours poison into alcohol," the minister told the Prima television station.
The government now faces the challenge of getting the legal market in spirits back on its feet after Health Minister Leos Heger this month banned the sale of all liquor with an alcohol content over 20 percent in an effort to give police time to track down the source.
The first loosening of the ban could happen as early as Wednesday although the ban on spirit exports will remain in place until further notice.
The emergency situation has forced the traditional Becherovka herbal liqueur factory in Karlovy Vary to use new ways to maintain its presence on the market. The company has introduced a new product series with an alcohol content of just 19 percent to circumvent the sales ban. The new lemon-tasting liqueur is due to hit the shelves in the next 48 hours.