Armenia Moves to Prevent Bird Flu Outbreak after Three Deaths in Turkey

YEREVAN (Combined Sources)–The Armenian government announced Monday plans to allocate $111,000 to prevent the spread of bird flu from nearby regions in neighboring Turkey where the deadly virus has killed three people and is reportedly sweeping westward.

The government has already imposed a complete ban on poultry imports–introduced mandatory sanitary controls on Armenia’s border crossings–and ordered the Armenian customs to check every piece of luggage arriving from Turkey.

"No cases of bird flu have been registered in Armenia to date," said Grigor Baghian–head of the Armenian Agriculture Ministry’s Veterinary Department. "The virus has not reached the republic. But the situation in neighboring countries has put us in a high-risk zone."

Baghian is a member of an inter-ministerial task force coordinating preventive measures against the H5N1 virus. The body was set up by the Armenian government last November following outbreaks of the disease in Russia–Turkey–and several Eastern European countries. 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.

Turkish authorities 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 Health Ministry has confirmed a total of 14 bird flu cases–most of them in Turkey’s eastern regions close to Armenia. Over two dozen others were reportedly undergoing tests in Istanbul on Monday.

Although the Turkish-Armenian border has long been closed–the disease can be easily transmitted to Armenia by wild birds. Hunting for wild fowl has therefore been banned until March 15 as part of the latest measures taken by the Armenian government. Also–vets across the country have been instructed to watch for sick birds and immediately report them to Yerevan.

According to Baghian–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 to ensure 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" by sanitary inspectors deployed at border crossings.

Residents of several villages near the Turkish border 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–said 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 Virab 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 because the village of Khor Virab received all relevant instructions and vaccines from government officials just on Monday.

Meanwhile in Yerevan–a chief doctor at an infectious disease hospital said his staff was ready to treat people who might have bird flu. He said the hospital has stored the Tamiflu vaccine–believed to be the most effective drug to fight bird flu. David Arakelian–chief manager of the Armenian branch of the Swiss Roche company that produces Tamiflu–said they have brought in 50,000 packages of the vaccine–which will be distributed to local pharmacies and will cost around 15,000 drams.

The US embassy in Yerevan issued a special health warning to US 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 message posted on its website over 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 Armenia’s that those products will pose no health risks if properly cooked.

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