As reports of avian flu in Turkey increase, concerns about the disease in neighboring countries have grown. On 16 January, RFE/RL Armenian Service Director Hrair Tamrazian spoke with Dr. Juan Lubroth, a senior officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Lubroth just returned from an inspection tour of Turkey.
RFE/RL: You just returned from Turkey. As an expert, you have your take on the Turkish situation. How serious is the situation? Is H5N1 spreading rapidly?
Juan Lubroth: We only have confirmation on one outbreak in Turkey that we know is H5N1 and that is right across from the Armenian border. The remaining outbreaks that we have confirmation on we know for them to be H5, but we do not know if they are all H5N1.
RFE/RL: So the worst virus, H5N1, is from the village near the Armenian border, correct?
Lubroth: That’s correct.
RFE/RL: That’s the only H5N1…
Lubroth: …that is confirmed. Most likely, the other viruses that we will identify and characterize from the other poultry outbreaks will also be H5N1, but we don’t know that just yet. We do know that what has been confirmed from the human cases is H5N1.
RFE/RL: Is there any chance that there could be human-to-human transfer of the virus, or not at this stage?
Lubroth: Perhaps that question would be best answered by someone from the WHO [World Health Organization] or the ECDC [European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control]. However, we have no evidence of human-to-human transmission at this stage.
Yes, I agree with my director that we would need good and transparent information from the neighboring countries from Turkey, where we would be guaranteed that the disease is not there. However, we have heard for the past several months reports of high poultry deaths in some of those neighboring countries bordering Turkey. In some cases, it has been determined to be poisoning. In other cases, it has been determined to be other infectious diseases. And that would need to be qualified and verified by some of the OIE [World Organization for Animal Health] and FAO reference laboratories.
RFE/RL: What you are saying now is that you know there were some cases of dead poultry. Is the Armenian government contacting you about these matters? Are they trying to work through your organization? Do you have any complaint against them?
Lubroth: We have been dealing with the veterinary services of Armenia in the past and we have some current projects. Although we have projects in Armenia and a good relationship with their veterinary services, we have not gotten specific reports regarding poultry and poultry health from them.
RFE/RL: You know, there are some reports that poultry is dying in some villages and they are testing in local laboratories in the capital city. And they say there is no bird flu. Is that the right way to proceed?
Lubroth: For us to tell that it is not bird flu, it would be very important for us to know why these birds are dying and to prove to the international community that Armenia does not have H5 or H5N1. It is one thing to say it; it is another thing to prove it. We would welcome working more closely with the Armenian authorities to assist them to provide reliable diagnosis and even to offer the availability of OIE and FAO reference laboratories, who have great experience in identifying the virus and characterizing the virus.
RFE/RL: Can we say that you are not happy with the government’s actions?
Lubroth: No, it is not that we are not happy. We do do a lot of work with them on other animal-health issues. We just would like to be able to have, perhaps, better communication and sample sharing to the reference laboratories on a regular basis. And there is a reporting obligation to the World Organization for Animal Health and those reports should be substantiated with quality diagnostics. We do not know the level, the capacity, of the Armenian laboratory or other laboratories in the region to do that type of diagnosis.
RFE/RL: There are some radio reports that in some villages just across the border in Armenia…. We sent our correspondent and the guy came back and said, you know, villagers are complaining that poultry is dying. And they take them to the local laboratories and they say, no, it is some kind of plague or whatever. Is that the right way to proceed?
Lubroth: No, it is not the right way. We would need to know, if it is not avian influenza, what is it? And we do not know what it is. Do you see? There are many diseases that look like avian influenza. One is caused by salmonella and it is called fowl cholera. Now, it could be fowl cholera and I would not doubt it if you show me the bacteria. Now, it could be Newcastle Disease, another avian disease, and I wouldn’t doubt it. Just show me the virus. And I don’t have that. I’m not getting that type of information. So rather than to criticize the countries that we are trying to assist, it would be better for us to be able to assist them and for us to have good communications with those countries. We are preparing a WHO and FAO — together with the OIE — mission to Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, probably Syria in the next few days to be able to see what level of preparedness do these countries have on the human level, at the veterinary level, and to perhaps see are these laboratories able to characterize the virus or the bacteria.
RFE/RL: So you are sending your experts?
Lubroth: We have to get country permission in order to do that, and that is what we are working on with the WHO.
RFE/RL: Is there any problem there? Getting permission…
Lubroth: No, we’ve just started organizing this yesterday and we are not at that stage yet.