By Anna Saghabalian
U.S. diplomats and medical experts pledged to help Armenia guard against bird flu on Wednesday as they were briefed on its government’s efforts to prevent a spread of the deadly virus from Turkey during a one-day visit to Yerevan.
The visiting officials were part of a special task force made up of representatives of several U.S. government agencies, including the departments of agriculture and health. It was formed recently to assess the risk of a serious bird flu outbreak in the region and has already visited Turkey and some of the neighboring nations.
Washington pledged last week to spend $334 million on preventing a global pandemic. The 12 members of its fact-finding delegation, most of them epidemiologists and veterinary experts, held separate meetings with officials from various Armenian government agencies dealing with the problem.
“The United States is committed to assisting Armenia, and just as a result of today’s discussions, some immediate steps will be taken,” Ann Derse, a senior State Department official leading the team, told a news conference. “Protecting the health of the workers who deal with the disease both in the animal and human realm is critical. In this connection, the U.S. will be sending to Armenia within 10 days or so 1,500 kits of personal protective equipment.”
Derse said the Armenian authorities will also be supplied with chemical substances used for detecting the H5N1 virus that has killed four people in areas in eastern Turkey close to the Armenian border. In addition, she said, a U.S. expert will visit Yerevan next month to “assist in reviewing the preparedness and response plan of Armenia.”
The Armenian government approved such a plan last week, paving the way for the release of $4 million worth of assistance promised by the World Bank. It envisages, among other things, instructions on how to cull poultry in cases of emergency, training of officials in charge of veterinary security and purchase of special laboratory equipment for quickly detecting the virus.
The government heightened sanitary controls at Armenia’s border crossings and ordered a mandatory vaccination of chickens and other fowl in villages close to the Turkish border following the recent outbreak of bird flu in Turkey. It also banned hunting for wild birds that are believed to be the main carriers of the virus.
“Cases have not been found in Armenia yet, to my understanding,” said Derse. “But the important point is that we want to be actively monitoring and surveilling and preparing to respond if they do. We are delivering the same message to every country in the world.”
Derse also said the U.S. officials were “impressed with the efforts of the Turkish government” to tackle the oubtreak of the virus. “There are good lessons to be learned and good experiences to be shared,” she said. “I hope all countries in the region will consult with each other and learn from each other.”
Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic relations, making any joint action against the problem practically impossible. The Armenian Foreign Ministry says it sent a diplomatic note to Ankara asking for detailed information about the outbreak earlier this month but has still not received a response.