By Astghik Bedevian
Armenia remains unaffected by the spread of bird flu across the region but will face additional risks with the start of traditional spring migration of wild birds, the main carriers of the deadly virus, veterinary authorities said on Monday.
The State Veterinary Inspectorate said it has been instructed by the Armenian government to broaden preventive measures against the H5N1 virus that have so far focused on chickens and other farmed birds. According to its director Grigor Baghian, wildlife experts will help the agency closely monitor thousands of migratory birds that use the country as a transit point.
“We know the traditional routes of migration and the places where wild birds nest,” he told RFE/RL. “We must closely look at those places to see if there are any cases of death or disease among migrating birds.”
The planned action is taking on greater urgency following the discovery of the virus among dead wild birds found in neighboring Azerbaijan. "The results from tests on wild birds showed the presence of the H5N1 bird flu virus," the Azerbaijani Health Ministry said in a statement on Friday.
The outbreak led experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) to say on Monday that Azerbaijan is not doing enough to combat the spread of the virus."I'm calling on the veterinary service to increase its capacity to monitor domestic and wild poultry. More could be done," the head of a visiting WHO team, Kuulo Kutsar, told AFP news agency.
The Armenian Veterinary Inspectorate and other government agencies have already taken preventive measures since last month’s serious outbreak of bird flu that killed four people in neighboring Turkey. Those include a ban on hunting for wild birds, restrictions on poultry imports, heightened sanitary controls at border checkpoints and a mass inoculation of fowl in villages close to the Turkish border.
Baghian said more than two million chickens have already been vaccinated against bird flu and less dangerous conventional diseases that are not uncommon in Armenia. The number of chicken deaths caused by those diseases has decreased markedly since last autumn, he said. “All of this gives us reason to say at this point avian that influenza has not reached Armenia,” he added.
But Baghian cautioned that the country is far from being immune to the flu virus. “The danger is still there,” he said. “The fact is that the virus has been detected in various countries. Borders are not a hurdle to the virus and it may still reach Armenia.”
The effectiveness of the government efforts is called into question by local consumer rights activists. “We have heard optimistic speeches and reports about the situation in the republic,” said Armen Poghosian of the Armenian Union of Consumers. “But how can I trust them after twice crossing the Georgian-Armenian border and seeing how they are guarding against the virus? Disinfections are done properly on the Georgian side and poorly on our side.”
The Armenian government has so far earmarked a modest 70 million drams ($150,000) for the preventive measures. A more comprehensive plan of action against H5N1 approved by it last month requires a lot more funding, leading the authorities in Yerevan to ask for $4 million in loans and grants from the World Bank. They are also set to receive relevant assistance from the U.S. government.