By Atom Markarian
The government approved on Thursday a three-year plan of action against the spread of tuberculosis in Armenia, citing an alarming increase in the number of people infected with the serious lung disease.
Government officials said the $5 million program, to be partly financed by international aid agencies, will help the authorities substantially lower its incidence among Armenians, many of whom are vulnerable to the infectious disease due to widespread malnutrition and a lack of heating in the winter. According to the Armenian Ministry of Health, some 5,620 people are currently suffering from TB.
Deputy Health Minister Hayk Darpinian said the figure indicates a major increase from the 1990s. He said particularly alarming is the fact that about a third of the infected people are aged from 18 from 24.
“Unfortunately, the spread of the disease is accompanied by a rise in the mortality rate,” Darpinian told reporters, adding that more than 100 people died of TB last year. He admitted that the real scale of the epidemic may be higher as the authorities are unable to register all TB cases among impoverished people who often can not afford health care.
The program seeks to make it easier for health authorities to identify such cases and treat patients free of charge in all parts of the country. The government will spend 717 million drams ($1.27 million) for that purpose next year.
“We envision that we will achieve quite an improvement of the situation by the end of 2006,” Darpinian said.
Assistance from Western donors and relief agencies will be essential for the program’s successful implementation. One of them, the International Committee of Red Cross, has already opened a TB research laboratory in Yerevan. The governments of Germany and Japan contributed modern equipment to the facility.
The Red Cross has also spent about $1 million on the construction of a separate tuberculosis ward at Armenia’s main prison hospital. The hospital unit, which can accommodate up to 220 TB-infected prisoners was opened two years ago.
The TB incidence is particularly high in the Armenian jails where conditions remain harsh, owing mainly to a lack of public funds. The disease is believed to be the principal cause of prisoner deaths in the country.