Belgrade's open-air markets were a welter of busy customers on Friday, pushing and shoving to buy one item — garlic.
In Serbia, garlic has long been regarded as a good luck charm and a guard against many ailments. As far as the public is concerned, that includes the swine flu pandemic, which recently has spread in Serbia and triggered near panic among the local population.
That is now evident in Belgrade's produce markets, where the price of garlic has shot up, thanks to a sudden increase in demand. The smell of the little white cloves also has become prevalent in public places as people munch on them as if eating apples.
Health officials have publicly urged the population not to take garlic's healing properties so seriously. Instead, they recommend opting for more conventional precautions, such as washing hands, wearing face masks, or eventually getting vaccinated.
But those calls seem to have been in vain.
"Garlic is the best, forget the vaccines," said Marko Jankovic, an elderly Belgrader, with the pungent smell of garlic obvious as he spoke at the crowded Kaleniceva Pijaca market. "From the vaccine, you can get sick. From garlic, you can only get bad breath."
Facing a surge of swine flu cases, Serbia's Health Ministry on Friday ordered 3 million vaccines from Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis AG.
The authorities said Serbia has about 270 proven swine flu cases and eight deaths — up from about 130 cases and two deaths at the beginning of November.
In many parts of the world, the distinct taste and smell of garlic are considered essential in many meals. But in Serbia — as elsewhere in the Balkans — many people consider it more important than that.
Garlic is kept on doorsteps or in pockets to keep vampires away, and under babies' pillows to ensure a healthy and prosperous life. Serbs often consume garlic as a snack together with slivovitz, a strong plum brandy.
These days, Serbian media often compare what happened at two popular music festivals as proof of the alleged medicinal virtues of garlic.
That's because Serbia's first swine flu cases were confirmed after the annual Exit rock music festival in July in the town of Novi Sad, where authorities say the mostly young audience indulged in beer and marijuana.
By contrast, the media say, no swine flu cases resulted from the equally popular folk music festival in Guca, central Serbia, where the generally older, more tradition audience gorged on meat dishes heavily spiced with garlic, and drank slivovitz.
For centuries, garlic has been regarded by many people around the world as a successful medical treatment for everything from indigestion to respiratory problems. Recent medical studies also have shown that garlic can reduce a person's blood pressure.
But in Serbia, doctors are telling the public to stop considering it as a swine flu defense.
"People must take this pandemic more seriously and focus on real prevention and medicine," not garlic, said Zoran Djordjevic, a virology doctor at a Belgrade hospital.