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BIRD FLU CRISIS IN TURKEY PUTS ARMENIA ON HIGH ALERT

Emil Danielyan 1/13/06

Authorities in Armenia are scrambling to avert a possible spread of bird flu from neighboring Turkey where an outbreak of the deadly virus has killed three people, putting Europe and other surrounding regions on high alert. Extraordinary measures taken by Armenian officials include mandatory medical checks of individuals arriving from Turkey, heightened sanitary controls at Armenian border crossings, and a stricter ban on poultry imports.

President Robert Kocharian held an emergency meeting with senior government officials on January 9 following last week’s death of three Turkish children from a village located less than 60 kilometers from the Armenian border. The children reportedly died after playing with chickens infected with the H5N1 virus. It was the first case of the disease transmitted from birds to humans outside of East Asia. Turkish health authorities have since confirmed at least 14 bird flu cases, most of them in the country’s eastern regions close to Armenia.

The Armenian government already set up an inter-ministerial task force in November in response to similar outbreaks of the disease in Russia, Turkey and Eastern Europe late last year. The potential for a grave crisis in Turkey has led the task force to step up its activities. Its deputy chief, Grigor Baghian, is holding news briefings on a virtually daily basis to inform Armenians about steps taken by the government and to give relevant advice. “In terms of avian influenza prophylactics, we are doing everything that is being done around the world,” he assured reporters on January 11.

So far there have been no reported cases of bird flu in Armenia. But Baghian, who also heads the State Veterinary Inspectorate, admitted that the South Caucasus state is in a “high-risk zone” because of its proximity to areas hit by the disease. The US embassy in Yerevan underlined the dangers involved when it urged Americans living in Armenia to “avoid all contact with live poultry and wild birds and to avoid commercial or backyard poultry farms and live poultry markets.”

According to Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, official Yerevan sent a diplomatic note to Ankara this week asking for detailed information about the bird flu cases registered in Turkey. “We haven’t received a response yet,” Oskanian told a news conference on January 10.

Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic relations, and their land border has been shut for more than a decade due to Armenia’s unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan, Turkey’s closest regional ally, over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. But the closed frontier is hardly a reliable barrier against bird flu. Unofficial flights and bus services occur regularly between Istanbul and Yerevan, and so far have not been affected by the bird flu scare. The Armenian Foreign Ministry has advised Armenian citizens to stay away only from eastern Turkey.

The virus can also be easily transmitted by migrating wild birds. Hunting for the birds is now illegal in Armenia, and villagers have been urged to notify the authorities about any bird carcass or sick bird found. The government has set aside 50 million drams ($110,000) for vaccination of poultry in rural areas. Also, Armenian medical officials have been instructed to examine every person arriving from Turkey, while veterinary teams have been deployed at border crossings to spray disinfectant on all vehicles entering Armenia from Georgia and Iran. In addition, the Armenian authorities have broadened a partial ban on imports of poultry products that was imposed last October.

Similar measures have been taken in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan. Both countries have stepped up medical controls and disinfections at border crossings. To date, neither has reported any bird flu cases. In a January 11 interview with Rustavi-2 television, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said that 2.7 million lari (roughly $1.5 million) had been allotted for preventive measures, including the publication of books outlining preventive measures “in plain language” and the preparation of lessons on avian flu for school children. Seven emergency centers have been established in major population centers to fight any outbreak of the disease, the prime minister said. In Azerbaijan, attention is reportedly focused on the Nakhichevan exclave bordering Turkey. The Baku daily newspaper Echo reported the deputy head of the country’s veterinary service, Emin Shahbazov, as saying that sanitary controls there have been “significantly strengthened” over the past week.

It remains to be seen how effective these precautions are. In all three South Caucasus states there have already been reports of dozens of chicken dying in village farms in recent weeks. But local officials and farmers insist that the deaths were caused by other, more “traditional” fowl diseases that are not uncommon in the impoverished rural areas of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Health experts say the region will face even greater risks with the start of the spring bird migration from Turkey and other parts of the world.

The European Union, meanwhile, decided not to take any chances this week, imposing a ban on imports of untreated feathers, poultry and eggs from six countries bordering Turkey, including Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In addition, residents of the three countries traveling to southern Russia now have to undergo medical checks upon arrival, the RIA-Novosti agency reported.

The emergency measures are likely to remain in place until the situation in Turkey significantly improves. International opinion differs on just when that might happen. “I have a sense that what is going on in Turkey can be brought under control relatively easily,” Guenael Rodier, head of a World Health Organization (WHO) team sent to investigate the outbreak, told journalists on January 10, according to international media reports.

But the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is less sanguine. The FAO warned in a statement on January 11 that the bird flu virus could become endemic in Turkey and poses “a serious risk” to its neighbors, including Armenia.

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