By Emil Danielyan
A single woman facing starvation in a rundown residential complex in Yerevan has been diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized by medical authorities after they were alerted by RFE/RL.
Zarik Hakobian, 44, is one of several hundred low-income residents of a former factory hostel in the city’s southern Erebuni district reduced to a slum dwelling after years of government neglect and indifference. She shares its damp and disease-prone ground floor with about a dozen families mired in extreme poverty.
They said last week they have long suspected that Hakobian, a white-haired skeletal woman who looks much older, is suffering from TB. Their fears were borne out by doctors from a local policlinic who visited and examined her several days later, following an instruction from the health care department of the Yerevan municipality.
The head of the policlinic, Marieta Andreasian, told RFE/RL that Hakobian was taken to a special tuberculosis clinic in Abovian, a town north of Yerevan, early on Monday. She said all of the woman’s neighbors, among them small children, will now be checked for symptoms of the potentially deadly disease which has spread dramatically in Armenia in recent years.
Andreasian confirmed that poor living conditions and a lack of sanitation were the main cause of the TB infection. “Tuberculosis is a social disease that results from poverty,” she said.
Evidence of the poverty abounds inside and outside the Soviet-era building. Its tiny rooms lack basic amenities and its courtyard is littered with garbage. Some of the residents believe that the infectious lung disease killed at least two of their neighbors last year. But Andreasian effectively denied this, saying that her policlinic has not registered any TB cases there before.
Citing a major increase in the number of such cases since the 1990s, the Armenian government approved last December a three-year action plan aimed at tackling the disease. Officials said at the time that widespread malnutrition and a lack of heating in the winter makes Armenians vulnerable to the disease. More than 100 people died of TB last year, according to the Armenian Ministry of Health.
The incidence of tuberculosis is particularly high among prisoners. According to government estimates, some 400 inmates, or about 10 percent of Armenia’s prison population, have contracted the illness.
In the words of Vahan Poghosian, a ministry official in charge of the program’s implementation, there about 6,000 officially registered TB cases in Armenia. Poghosian admitted that their real number may be higher as the authorities are unable to register all such cases among impoverished people who often can not afford health care.
“Finding and treating such individuals free of charge is one of the key objectives of the program,” he said.
The anti-TB plan is worth at least $5 million and will require substantial external funding in order to be put into practice. Two German government agencies have so far been the biggest contributors, pledging to spend 2.25 million euros ($2.8 million) on the provision of relevant drugs and medical equipment as well as the training of local medical personnel.
Also involved in the effort will be the International Committee of Red Cross and possibly the French-Belgian charity Medecins Sans Frontieres. The Red Cross has already provided $1 million to the construction of a tuberculosis ward at Armenia’s main prison hospital.
(Photo by Onnik Krikorian.)