By Astghik Bedevian, Harry Tamrazian in Prague and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Authorities in Armenia said Tuesday they subjected to stringent health and sanitary checks the passengers of the first plane to arrive in Yerevan from Istanbul since the deadly outbreak of bird flu in Turkey.
The reportedly heightened controls at Yerevan’s Zvartnots international airport are part of government measures aimed at preventing a spread of the H5N1 virus which has hit eastern Turkish regions close to the Armenian border. A United Nations food agency has warned that it could spill over into Armenia and other nations bordering Turkey.
Although the Turkish-Armenian border has been closed for over a decade, the virus can be easily transmitted by wild birds that cross it on a daily basis. The two estranged countries also have regular flight and bus services. Direct flights between Istanbul and Yerevan were effectively suspended late last month due to New Year’s holiday.
The service resumed when a passenger jet belonging to Armenia’s largest Armavia airline landed at Istanbul airport on Monday. It returned to Yerevan early on Tuesday with some 40 passengers on board. According to a spokeswoman for the Armenian government’s Civil Aviation Department, Gayane Davtian, they all underwent medical checks upon arrival at Zvartnots.
“Passengers were checked for fever and other disease symptoms. Fortunately, none of the 40 passengers was found to be infected with any flu viruses,” she told RFE/RL.
Davtian said customs officers checked their luggage and confiscated all food products that might theoretically carry the bird flu virus. “Customs officers wore gloves in accordance with the new rules,” she said. “They found and put aside many pieces of food and are awaiting Health Ministry instructions as to what should be done with that food.”
An airport source said the health condition of the passengers was supposed to be checked by three doctors from the state Hygiene and Epidemiological Inspectorate. Only one of epidemiologists showed up early in the morning and his inspection of the individuals arriving from Istanbul was less than rigorous, the source said.
The deputy director of the Health Ministry agency, Artavazd Vanian, declined to comment on the claims. “All I can say is that none of the passengers displayed any disease symptoms,” he said.
For his part, Armavia’s deputy chairman, Arshak Nalbandian, said Yerevan-Istanbul flights will continue to be carried out twice a week despite the bird flu scare. He said the Armenian carrier has decided to serve only Armenian-made food on its Istanbul-Yerevan flights and taught its flight attendants how to detect symptoms of bird flu.
Meanwhile, an official from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced on Monday that this and another UN agency, the World Health Organization, plan to send fact-finding teams to Armenia and several other countries bordering Turkey “to be able to see what level of preparedness these countries have.” In a statement last week, FAO warned that the virus could become endemic in Turkey and poses a “serious risk” to its neighbors.
In an interview with RFE/RL, the official, Juan Lubroth, said FAO wants to have “better communication” with the Armenian authorities in its efforts to avert a global bird flu pandemic. “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,” Lubroth said.
“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,” he added.
But Agriculture Minister David Lokian insisted that Yerevan has already briefed FAO on the situation in Armenia. “We have had contact with FAO through our ambassador to Italy and regularly provide them with information,” he told RFE/RL. “I have personally twice spoken with FAO’s Budapest-based representative to our region.”
“Besides, I have three rooms in my ministry with FAO representatives sitting there,” said Lokian.
The Armenian government, which set up an inter-ministerial body coordinating measures against bird flu last November, says no cases of the virus have been identified in the country so far. “I can officially state that we have had no individuals or birds suffering from avian influenza,” Health Minister Norayr Davidian said on Tuesday.
Armenia’s State Veterinary Inspectorate claims to have examined more than a hundred carcasses of wild and domestic birds found across the country over the past week. It says none of those birds were found to have died from the H5N1.
Residents of at least one village close to the Turkish border reported dozens of chicken deaths last week. But both they and local government officials believe that those were not caused by bird flu.
“There are many diseases that look like avian influenza,” said FAO’s Lubroth, who just returned from an inspection tour of Turkey. “One is caused by salmonella and it is called fowl cholera. It could be fowl cholera and I would not doubt it if you show me the bacteria. 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.”