By Anna Saghabalian and Hrach Melkumian
The Armenian authorities announced on Monday extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of bird flu from nearby regions in neighboring Turkey where the deadly virus has already killed three people and is reportedly sweeping westward.
Officials said the government in Yerevan has imposed a complete ban on poultry imports, introduced mandatory sanitary controls on Armenia’s border crossings and ordered the Armenia customs to check every piece of luggage arriving from Turkey.
“No cases of bird flu have been registered in Armenia to date,” Grigor Baghian, head of the Armenian Agriculture Ministry’s State Veterinarian Inspectorate, told RFE/RL. “The virus has not reached the republic. But the situation in neighboring countries has put us in a high-risk zone,”
“That means [disease outbreaks] can not be ruled out tomorrow, the day after or later on,” he added.
Baghian is a member of an inter-ministerial task force coordinating preventive measures against the H5N1 virus. The ad hoc body was set up by the Armenian government last November following serious outbreaks of the disease reported in Russia, Turkey and some countries of Eastern Europe. Its work received much greater urgency last week with the death of three children from a Turkish village just 55 kilometers from the Armenian border.
Authorities there said the children died after playing with diseased chickens and catching the virus from them. It was the first case of the H5N1 jumping from birds to
humans outside east Asia. The Turkish Healthy Ministry has confirmed a total of 14 bird flu cases, most of them in Turkey’s impoverished eastern regions close to Armenia. Over two dozen people were reportedly undergoing tests in Istanbul on Monday amid fears that the virus is moving towards mainland Europe.
Although the Turkish-Armenian has long been closed for any traffic, the deadly disease can be easily transmitted to Armenia by wild burns. Hunting for them has therefore been banned as part of the latest measures taken by the Armenian government. Baghian said vets across the country have been instructed to watch for signs of bird frailty and immediately report them to Yerevan.
According to the official said all individuals arriving in Armenia from Turkey, both by air and via neighboring Georgia, have been undergoing thorough baggage checks since Sunday. “We have instructed relevant authorities to check the baggage of individuals coming from Turkey and make sure that not a single chicken feather or egg is brought to Armenia,” he said, adding that every vehicle and person entering Armenia has to be “disinfected” now by sanitary inspectors deployed at border crossings.
Meanwhile, in Vosketap, a village in the southern Ararat region bordering Turkey, dozens of chickens have reportedly died in recent days. But village residents were confident that the animal deaths were caused by another animal disease which hits the area regularly and is known to locals as “bird plague.”
Nvard Abrahamian, a villager who lost 12 chickens, said: “Our vet inspected the dead chickens and concluded that they were killed by another disease. He then inoculated the remaining chickens and said that … if they stay alive we will have nothing to worry about.”
“We still have a few chickens remaining but don’t know whether to cull them or just wait and see what happens,” she told RFE/RL.
“Everyone is now scared of bird flu,” said her neighbor Karine Avdalian.
Residents of several nearby villages reported no chicken deaths but were clearly worried about a possible cross-border penetration of avian influenza. One of those villages, Lusarat, is located on the eastern bank of the Arax River which marks the Turkish-Armenian frontier in that area.
A member of the village council, Vazgen Khachikian, told RFE/RL that a single case would trigger a mass cull of live poultry. “But no such cases have been identified in this area yet,” he said.
Gegham Arshakian, a resident of the neighboring Khor Virap village, complained that local authorities have not told farmers how to cope with a possible bird flu outbreak. “We just watch TV to get information,” he said.
According to the deputy village chief, Norik Martirosian, this is so because the Khor Virap administration received all relevant instructions and vaccines from Yerevan only on Monday.
Underscoring the gravity of the situation, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan issued a special health warning to U.S. citizens living in Armenia. “Given the situation in neighboring Turkey, we recommend that American citizens avoid all contact with live poultry and wild birds and to avoid commercial or backyard poultry farms and live poultry markets,” read a warden message posted on its website at the weekend.
The embassy stopped short of advising Americans not to buy Armenian poultry products, saying those can be safely consumed after “extensive cleansing and thorough cooking.” Baghian likewise assured Armenians that those products will pose no health risks if properly cooked.
(GI-Photolur photo: Hulya Kocyigit, an 11-year-old girl who died of bird flu in Turkey on Friday.)