Armenia Braces for Spring Migration as Bird Flu Reaches Azerbaijan

(CNN/RFE/RL/Armenpress)–Health officials in Azerbaijan say the deadly H5N1 strain has been found in dead birds from the country’s Caspian sea coast.

State-run Lider TV cited the results from a London laboratory that had tested the dead birds.

"The results from tests on wild birds showed the presence of the H5N1 bird flu virus," the Azeri Health Ministry said in a statement on Friday.

The outbreak in Azerbaijan 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.

An opposition paper in Azerbaijan reported on Sunday that a resident of Masalli in southern Azerbaijan has been hospitalized with symptoms of bird flu.

The man–identified by the newspaper as Seyfullayev–was rushed to a local hospital Thursday night after reportedly eating a coot which he had bought at a market. He is in a critical condition–Azadliq said.

This is the second suspected case of human infection with the deadly H5N1 virus in Azerbaijan. Opposition papers have also said that a pregnant woman from Masalli’s Qizilavar village died of the bird flu in Baku earlier.

So far the World Health Organization has confirmed 165 human cases of the disease in a number of nations–including Cambodia–China–Indonesia–Iraq–Thailand–Turkey–and Vietnam.

Meanwhile–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," said. "We must closely look at those places to see if there are any cases of death or disease among migrating birds."

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 Armenian government has so far earmarked 70 million drams ($150,000) for the preventive measures. A more comprehensive plan of action against H5N1 approved last month requires a lot more funding–leading the authorities in Yerevan to ask for $4 million in loans and gran’s from the World Bank. They are also set to receive relevant assistance from the US government.

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