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By Atom Markarian
Armenia’s government asked for additional external assistance to its efforts to guard against bird flu on Thursday as the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus continued to spread across Europe and the Middle East.

The request addressed to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was approved at a cabinet meeting chaired by President Robert Kocharian.

Officials declined to reveal the monetary value of the requested aid, saying only that it would mainly take the form of equipment supplies and training of Armenian veterinary experts and epidemiologists. They also insisted that no cases of bird flu have been registered in the country so far.

The authorities in Yerevan are already expected to receive $4 million in loans and grants from the World Bank to ensure the implementation of their recently approved plan of action against H5N1. 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 United States has pledged to contribute to the effort.

A statement by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s office said FAO aid would also strengthen the Armenian government’s “capacity to gather and disseminate information about avian influenza.” Two experts from Armenia’s State Veterinary Inspectorate have already undergone relevant training at the FAO headquarters in Budapest and two others will do so next month.

“Avian influenza has not been registered in our republic as of today,” the head of the inspectorate, Grigor Baghian, told journalists. “That is why we are focusing on preventing that virus from penetrating Armenia from other countries.”

Among the countries that have confirmed bird flu cases are neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan. The latter detected two outbreaks of the virus among wild birds earlier this month. Similar cases are being reported across Europe on a practically daily basis.

Government officials and disease experts say the risks facing Armenia will grow considerably with the start early next month of the spring migration of wild birds, the main carriers of H5N1. Armenia serves as a transit point for them.

Baghian repeated the government’s pledge to form and send special teams of epidemiologists to locations traditionally used by wild birds for nesting. “Possible cases of bird deaths and other extraordinary phenomena would be immediately reported to local veterinary services,” he said.

The official also sought to ease Armenian consumers’ lingering concerns about eating chickens, eggs and poultry products saying that local poultry farms are being regularly inspected by his agency. “Those products are sold with appropriate safety certificates,” he said.

The government imposed a near complete ban on poultry imports on January 3 following the deaths of three children in a village in eastern Turkey located less than 60 kilometers from the Armenian border. They died after reportedly contracting the disease from domestic chickens.

The Armenian authorities have also heightened sanitary controls at the border crossings and carried out a mass vaccination of fowl in villages close to the Turkish border.

(Itar-Tass-Photolur photo)
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