Rumours that Western aid agencies are collecting human blood in return for food aid in famine-stricken Malawi have spread panic among villagers, who are barricading their homes, fearing attacks by vampires. The anxiety is so great in parts of the south that farm workers in one of Africa's poorest countries are staying at home.
President Bakili Muluzi, who has accused the opposition of spreading the rumours that his government was colluding with the aid agencies' "vampirical" demands, has been forced to dispatch a team of cabinet ministers to the area to reassure the people.
Jane Beesley, an Oxfam spokeswoman in the southern city of Blantyre, said: "Some of our staff have been experiencing difficulties getting into villages, because they put up roadblocks and barricades at 4pm because of the fear that people will come and take their blood." Oxfam's relief work had not been particularly affected, "but people are quite frightened in some of the villages".
Vampire rumours are part of Malawi superstition. The latest spate spread last week when The Nation newspaper reported that villagers in southern Thyolo had waylaid three Catholic priests whom they suspected of hunting for blood. A man accused of being a vampire was stoned to death in the same area. A "blood hunter" was reported to have sucked blood from a woman and hurt her son during an attack on their home in a district of Blantyre.
The panic might have been fuelled by a BBC World Service report on a blood clinic in Blantyre. Staff working for a local authority were not allowed into one village because they were carrying bags of cement. It is not known why the villagers were suspicious of the cement, which was to be used on a water bore-hole project.
President Muluzi denounced the vampire stories as malicious and irresponsible. "No government can go about sucking blood of its own people," he told a news conference.
The rumours have increased political tensions in the country, one of the 10 poorest in the world, where protests have already broken out over Mr Muluzi's efforts to stay in office for another five years. He said the rumours were also affecting economic activity in four southern districts as farm workers stayed indoors. He said any opposition politicians found spreading the vampire stories would be punished.