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 September 19, 2003 


Who's Minding the Meat and Milk?: Ineffectual veterinary measures pose health risk

Every year across Armenia, European Union grant money is spent in efforts to combat disease spread from animals to humans. This year alone 950 million drams (about $1.6 million) will be spent for protection against brucellosis, tuberculosis, foot and mouth disease and anthrax.

But this year, like others, consumers have taken ill from meat spoiled by the potentially-deadly anthrax, more than 100 cases of brucellosis will be reported, and foot-and-mouth disease is found in cattle, though it is officially denied.

In August, ArmeniaNow reporter Vahan Ishkhanyan won an investigative reporting grant from IREX/ProMedia, a United States Agency for International Aid media-strengthening program, and was assigned to research Armenia's battle against these infrequent, but potentially dangerous, health risks.

Anthrax: Cattlemen know its terror, too.

Because of being late with anthrax vaccination, Ara Grigoryan lost his only cow, which was also his only source of income. "It's Armenian fate," he says.

On July 13, meat inspectors found bacillus of anthrax in beef brought to a Komitas Street market from the village of Yervandasht, in the Armavir region.

"It is the first time when anthrax appeared in our village," says head of Yervandashat village Hovnan Avetisyan, "I never heard about it before. It happened because state measures hadn't been taken."

The only cow of 70-year old Ara Grigoryan was taken ill with anthrax.

"For two days I had been giving medicines to my cow against kiapanak (a disease of cattle) but it didn't help. The cow fell to the ground and I knifed it before it died. I told my son to take the cow to Yerevan and sell it there. But it became clear that the cow had been infected with anthrax," says the villager.

According to state regulations, vaccinations against anthrax should have been made in spring, but were not. Veterinary service specialists of the Baghramian region vaccinated the village cattle only after learning of the incident with Grigoryan's cow.

The very word "anthrax" became synonymous with terror, when envelopes of the powdered form (multiple times more deadly than found at its origin) were mailed to key locations in the United States, creating a national hysteria in 2001. In that year, 18 cases of the disease were reported in Armenia.

Last year, three residents of Armenia became sick from anthrax-infected meat, and three large cats at the Yerevan Zoo died from eating meat spoiled with the bacteria. Inspectors from the Center for Veterinary Service detected meat infected with anthrax in a meat market located on Khorenatsi Street in central Yerevan.

Officially the only case of anthrax registered this year was the one in Yervandashat. However, deputy chief doctor of "Nork" Hospital for Infectious Diseases Gohar Tamazyan said that in July one man had been diagnosed with cutaneous (skin) anthrax.

Anthrax, which gained a high profile as an ingredient in weapons of mass destruction, can have serious consequences as an innocently consumed bacteria. It can be transmitted through ingestion or through handling infected meat (only the second type has been registered in Armenia.)

In its worst stage, anthrax can cause death. First-stage disorders include fever and, in cases of cutaneous transmission, swelling and skin discoloration.

Geghetsik Sargsyan, of the Maisian village in the Armavir region, was one of those who had been infected with anthrax in 2001.

"My neighbor's animal was sick. They slaughtered it and we bought the meat. I washed it, boiled and we ate it. The next day a splinter cut my finger and it immediately swelled like a big black bruise," she says showing a long scar on her arm. "The next day my arm had swollen and my temperature had risen. In Armavir a doctor cleaned my wound and sent me back home.

Four bruises appeared on my neighbor's arm, who slaughtered his animal. One of the doctors in Armavir made a diagnosis of anthrax." Four people from the village were infected with cutaneous anthrax from the same meat.

Animals are infected with anthrax from the soil where bacilli can live for centuries as spores. When grass becomes sparse and short, grazing animals can also become infected from swallowing grains of soil.

Vaccination is 80 percent successful against anthrax. After every incidence of the disease, officials at the Ministry of Agriculture have pointed out that even vaccinated animals can become infected.

However, in every case in Armenia, anthrax has come from cattle that had not been vaccinated.

"Theoretically vaccinated animals can be infected with anthrax," says professor of the Academy of Agriculture Suren Grigoryan. "But that must be a coincidence when an animal with weak immunity eats soil infected with anthrax. But it happens very rarely. Delayed vaccination of animals becomes a cause of anthrax in Armenia. There can be more cases. We know only about the ones that have been reported."

Brucellosis: Preventable, but has lingering effects

"Last year in the spring my 10 sheep miscarried," says resident of Irind village Hranush Hipoyan. "I didn't understand what had happened, then they came and examined my animals. It became clear they were sick with brucellosis. In spring brucellosis was detected in 13 sheep and in autumn in 5 sheep. Now there are only 5 sheep left out of 31. I don't know, but they are probably sick too. This year nobody comes to examine them. What should I do? Is it my fault?"

Animals sick with brucellosis were detected at almost every household in one of four districts of Hranush's village.

Hranush and her son became infected as well and the illness has had lingering effects.

"Last year I was pushing a wheelbarrow," she says. "But this year I can't because my bones ache. My son and I were sweating and had high temperature. I was given injections but it didn't help."

Last year, 17 people in the village of 820 were made sick by bucellosis in Irind.

Irind. Here's the part infected by foot and mouth desease.

Brucellosis is transmitted through consuming milk or meat. It can also be transmitted if the spoiled meat or the excrement of an infected animal touches an open wound.

The disease can be found in small cattle (sheep and goats), large cattle, and pigs. The most dangersous type, through small cattle, can be fatal. The disease cannot be spread from human to human.

Fifty percent of those contracting the disease do not get completely cured, and, like Hranoush Hipoyan, suffer after effects that include aching joints and fever, especially in wet weather. Antibotics are an antidote.

Last year, 143 people were made sick by brucellosis in Armenia. Sixty-four cases were reported in the first seven months of this year.

Haje Bakoyan got sick with brucellosis six years ago, but didn't know what the ailment was.

"My left side weakened and I couldn't even hold a glass in my hand. Doctor from Vedi said I had a stroke and began treating me from that," she says. "Later my right arm weakened and doctors thought it was rheumatism. My temperature had been rising and my whole body was shaking. One day my husband told me, maybe you have brucellosis. Doctors examined me and, yes, it was brucellosis."

Now she feels relatively well, however, she knows that pain caused by brucellosis be present the rest of her life. Haje doesn't know how she was infected. Their animals were examined but none of them was sick. Her husband sells meat and it is assumed that she was infected from meat or milk they had bought.

Another one sick with brucellosis is 10 year old Armen from Yerevan, who was infected from cheese. His sister Teymira says that they always have 4-5 sorts of cheese in their fridge. They buy cheese from markets and Armen was probably infected from cheese.

Gohar Tamazyan says brucellosis usually does not have chronic damage for young people.

Asatur Sargsyan from Irind, however, has been bothered by brucellosis for 20 years.

"Every autumn and spring I take pills as my joints ache," he says.

Last year two of his 10 sheep were detected with brucellosis. "How it happened that other sheep didn't get infected, nobody knows, as all the sheep were couple with one ram" Sargsyan says. "Nobody comes to explain things."

Brucellosis is spread among cattle during breeding and one sick bull or ram could infect an entire herd. For that reason, Asatur is sure he has other infected sheep as well. (It can also be spread animal-to-animal by excrement.)

Last year, in only one district of Irind, brucellosis was detected in 40 out of 400 animals. Villagers say that the disease began spreading four years ago from the neighboring Verin Bazmaberd village, where 120 of 400 animals had been infected with brucellosis only in one district.

There are four districts in Irind, in which there are some 2,500 animals.

Last year only two districts were tested. And as of this report, no inspections have been made in Irind this year.

Foot-and-mouth disease: Officials say it doesn't exist

Head of Veterinary Inspection, Anushavan Aghajanyan, states that there is no foot-and-mouth disease in Armenia.

In Irind, however, Asatur Sargsyan lifts his cow's hoof and shows what he says is evidence of the disease.

"It has been in the stable for ten days and it will be here for ten days more until it recovers," Sargsyan says. He treats his cow's foot with solutions.

Health laws require seven types of cattle vaccinations, including one against foot-and-mouth disease. Only two vaccines have been administered in Irind. Sargsyan says his neighbors' cows also are infected.

Humans can be infected with hoof-and-mouth, but the effects are usually not serious (mouth and sometime skin ulceration) and quickly pass.

The economic impact, however, can be more damaging than the physical effects. Cattle grow thin, "like boards", villagers say, and milk production drop off.

North of Yerevan, in the Aragats valley, foot-and-mouth is said to be common. Cattle in the area have been vaccinated; but in this case, disease seems to be a result not of neglect, but of poor medicine.

"Foot-and-mouth disease is everywhere and it damages the economy," says Suren Grigoryan. "there are two causes of its spread. The first one is when vaccine is of low quality and has low immune degree. And the second cause is that animals often get sick with foot-and-mouth disease of the O-type as vaccine against the O-type is of low quality."

Of the seven required vaccines, the foot-and-mouth vaccine is the only one produced in Armenia (at the Veterinary Scientific and Research Institute).

To be effective, foot-and-mouth vaccine must be stored in conditions not exceeding eight degrees centigrade. It is carried in special cases for refrigeration when the temperature exceeds eight. But specialists say there are not enough cases in the region for storing the vaccine and that it turns to water during hot days.

But cattle vaccinated during the coldest seasons have also been infected.

"Vaccine cannot become too warm in winter," says head of the Anti-Epidemic Diagnostic Center Schmidt Vardapetyan, hinting that vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease is not prepared properly.

"If the field is barren, you blame the hail," he says.

To be continued...

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