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 August 22, 2003 




Wary of Water: Recent village epidemic is a reminder of Armenia's "Ordinary Phenomenon"


Lusine Khachatryan got an ulcer on her neck as a result of a water-spread disease caused by contact with rodents.

The eyes of 63-year old Margo Hovhannisyan become smaller from tears, and from the troubles she faces dealing with a sick family.

"I'm driven into a corner, I don't know what to do," she says, waving her hands. "Four members of my family are hopelessly sick and don't recover. This pain keeps gnawing at my family for a few months."

The pain invaded Fantan village (40 kilometers north of Yerevan) in the end of March when approximately 200 people of 1100 residents of the village started to complain of their health.

Residents became infected with tularemia, a disease known to be transmitted from rodents such as rats, mice and field mice.

Chief experts of the Ministry of Healthcare assure that in this case the disease reached the villagers through water.

"The source of the outbreak and its spread was drinking water supplied from Gutanasar to the community of Fantan. Thousands of field mice holes were found next to the source of the water," says the deputy head of the state anti-epidemic and sanitary revision Ghazaros Hakobyan. "Bodies of field mice infected with tularemia were found in the water reservoir and they became a cause of disease."

But the head of the Village, Valery Ivanyan, disputes the medical experts' opinion, claiming, first, that "our villagers are not sick", then saying that those who do have complaints "could get infected as a result of airborne infection".

As (the elected) head of the village, Ivanyan is responsible for maintenance of the village's water reservoir located on the nearby Gutanasar Mountain. By law, the reservoir is supposed to get periodic cleaning and disinfecting.

Ivanyan says the reservoir has been maintained properly and cleaned regularly. Villagers dispute the claim, however, saying they've never seen it cleaned. The reservoir has been closed since April and Fantan residents now pay to have water brought from a nearby village.

Symptoms first appeared nearly six months ago in 28-year old Fantan resident Lusine Khachatryan.

"There were many people sick," she says. "For an entire month I was undergoing incorrect medical treatment. Doctors didn't know what to do. They were trying different medicines, reading books but they couldn't do anything."

Once energetic and lively, Lusine gets tired from climbing only a few stairs. She is nervous and her joints and heart ache. Her legs are swollen and an ulcer has appeared on her neck. The ulcer was operated on two months ago, but it still becomes infected and drains.


"We lose our memory," says another sufferer of tularemia, 34 year old Gayane Hovhannisyan. "And it seems that health problems won't be finished until the end of life, however, it looks like it doesn't worry anyone."

Gayane and her 14 year old girl Anushik got infected with tularemia five months ago. Anushik, who was training to be a singer, has become hoarse. Like her mother, she has memory problems and often mispronounces familiar words.

"Today water is a symbol of evil for us," says Margo Hovhannisyan. "As a result of bad water quality we lost everything: our health, hope, cheerfulness and everything we had as correct and incorrect treatments during many months cost us a pretty penny. Today we have seriously ill family members, debts of $400 for medicines and two sheep we can't sell because nobody wants to buy anything from Fantan after this thing with disease."

A few hundred episodes of any illness - especially water related - should be enough to cause alarm. In Armenia, however, it barely produces a shrug.

Tularemia might not be common, but Fantan is not an exception when it comes to water-transmitted illness in Armenia.

Lusine Khachatryan says the villagers are forced to carry water by barrels and cans from other sources.

Six weeks ago 300 guests at 13 hostels in Hrazdan got dysentery when water from drainage pipes was mixed with drinking water.

A few years ago mass cases of cholera were registered in the Zartonk village of the Hoktemberian region.

Being wary of water is not merely restricted to the regions.

There were cases of typhoid fever in Gyumri in May of last year and of jaundice in Goris the year before.

On Hakobyan Street in Echmiadzin, Nuneh Shahnazaryan says her water stinks.

"Almost in all cases drinking water pipes are next to drain pipes," says Nuneh. "And they are so old that there is a danger that different small microbes could pass through cracks in pipes. Sometimes it happens that we cannot even look at the water as it becomes so dirty and disgusting and it stinks."

Fellow resident Gayane Khachatryan worries about her children's health because of water. They often have stomach aches and diarrhea.

When an ambulance attendant was called for one illness, he advised boiling water before using it for any purpose.

"Water pipes are 25 to 35 years old, and that's a pretty long period of time," says director of the Echmiadzin Water Supply System ltd. Karen Avagyan. "After rains the quality of water changes and the color of water changes as well because grains of soil or sand reach people through the water."

Avagyan says some pipes are so bad they even pour mud into Echmiadzin household sinks.

Avagyan refused to provide ArmeniaNow with results of laboratory research on his city's water quality. His agency's work is perfect, he assures, and whatever problems exist are not due to water quality, but to poor condition of pipes.

It is easy to find sources who say Armenia has a problem delivering safe water. It is considerably harder to find anyone who can do anything about it.

"The lack of finances doesn't allow organizing works in this field on a high level," Avagyan says. "Residents are not used to paying for water and they think that water is given by God.

In the case of the epidemic in Fantan, Hakobyan says that Ivanyan was fined 50,000 drams (about $85) for negligence.

The penalty is of little comfort to Margo Hovhanissyan's family and its $400 medical bill.

"We heard that enough money had been allotted for us to get medical treatment," she says. "We've done everything ourselves and those who are guilty are smiling and freely walking around. Who is going to return the health to my children or calm my neighbors? I've got no answers to that question."

"We are trying to fix damages as quick as it is possible, however, very often neglected situations happen and corresponding bodies don't fulfill their work and obligations," says Hakobyan. "Examination of water is a very complicated process because you must catch the necessary moment and know in advance what to research, otherwise nothing will turn out.

"Some water may contain microbes but some not. Besides, if there are no alarm calls, the Ministry of Healthcare has a right to conduct researches only once a year and only upon notifying an organization three days before revision. And residents still don't have a well formed culture of giving alarm calls and protecting their rights."

A few environmentally-conscious agencies such as the Union of Greens have raised issues concerning the quality of drinking water in Armenia.

"Drinking water is always considered good in Armenia," says head of Armenian Green Peace Hakob Sanasaryan. "However, such appraisals don't always comply with reality.

"Years ago we carried out a research and detected very dangerous microbes that can cause both intestinal infections and other very serious problems dangerous for health. We haven't recently conducted such researches, however, we can visually identify many things. For instance, we can detect small particles of mud in water, water pollution and grains of sand.

"All of that is because pipes are cracked and damaged, and not only sand but also different malignant agents penetrate pipes that can cause outbreaks, which have become an ordinary phenomenon."

This story was produced as part of an investigative reporting project supported by IREX/ProMedia - Armenia, a program funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

 


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