- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
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 September 26, 2003 


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

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.
Too many cattle for too few veterinarians creates problems ..

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.

In this second part of the report we look at causes for the current conditions. Click here to see last week's report.

A breakdown in the system

According to the Statistics Service there are 535,784 head of great cattle, 602,560 head of small cattle, 111,031 pigs and 12,141 horses in Armenia. All these animals belong to 333,000 households, many having from two to 20 animals.

If Armenia's animal disease control is lacking, there may be reasonable explanations.

First: Reaching each 330,000 households is a monumental task. Even then, there is no guarantee of finding every animal, as herds are not kept in fenced pastures, but are shepharded to nearby hills or valleys for grazing.

Such problems were not faced in Soviet times, when animals were housed on appointed state collective farms. Privatization - in this case, the division of animals from one central farm into many households - presented logistical difficulties for animal treatment.

Second: Low pay for veterinarians.

A veterninarian in Armenia is paid 20,000 drams (about $35) for vaccinating 2,000 cattle per month, less than two cents per animal. The effort requires dealing with the above mentioned logistical problems and with facing farmers who often do not welcome the vet's presence because they do not want the state to know how many animals they have. It is little reason few students study to be veterninarians.

There are other reasons, however, which officials aren't as willing to talk about.

Several days after detecting anthrax in Yervandashat, the head of the Veterinary Inspection Anushavan Aghajanyan stated that all spring measures have been taken on the territory of the entire republic. Head of the Department of Veterinary Security of the Ministry of Agriculture Tigran Gasparyan insists on the same. However, their insistences don't correspond to reality.

Five of seven planned measures haven't been taken in Irind. Diagnoses of such dangerous diseases as brucellosis and tuberculosis haven't been made, nor had vaccinations against anthrax.

According to data of the Department of Veterinary Security of the Ministry of Agriculture, as of August 20 of this year tests for brucellosis and tuberculosis have been made only in nine of 42 villages of the Talin region, where brucellosis was detected in approximately 100 animals. According to head of Talin Veterinary Service, Misha Simonyan, only about 12,000 of 64,000 cattle have been tested for brucellosis and tuberculosis.

"It's true that spring measures haven't been taken up to now but it's not our fault," Simonyan says. "We've recently received vaccines."

The government held a competition for the contract of veterinary service. One of the winning bids was from Hayruskensaard Ltd. The head of that company, Hrayr Hakobyan, says medicines were received in May.

The Ministry of Agrciulture began distributing brucellosis tests and anthrax vaccines on June 10. As of this report - 50 days later - less than one-fifth of Talin's animal population had not been tested or vaccinated.

Professor Grigoryan: "Sick animals shouldn't be taken to pasture.".

And even if they'd been tested and innoculated immediately upon receiving the medicines, it might not have been an effective time.

"Measures must be taken in spring before taking animals to pastures and in autumn after taking them back from pastures," says professor Grigoryan. "Sick animals shouldn't be taken to pastures where they can infect the grass."

However, vaccines and tests were brought to many places only after animals had already been taken to pastures.

Veterinary Service Sargis-Nvard Ltd. of Ashtarak region has detected 51 cases of brucellosis this year. Tuberculosis was detected in 2001. One of the service's veterinarians said that if there are 25,000 great cattle in the region then they manage to examine and vaccinate only 15,000. When his service got vaccines in June, the rest of the animals had already been taken to mountainous pastures, some of which are 60-70 kilometers away from their off-season stables.

It is the second year that bids have been taken for veterinary services and the second time that winners were announced in spring.

"Results of the competition should have been announced in December, so that vaccines could have been distributed before spring when the season for measures starts," says deputy head of the Department of Veterinary Security of the Ministry of Agriculture Gevorg Tovmasyan. "However, the amount of money planned for taking measures becomes clear only after confirming the budget. While they are deciding the amount and order of diseases against which measures must be taken, spring already starts."

The battle against sick animals is confounded by another after-effect of privatization.

One is that the Paros project, which provides living-support grants for the needy, does not give grants to those owning cattle. Many villagers, then, try to keep it secret that they have cattle.

But when veterinarians make their rounds, they must show documents of how many cattle have been vaccinated or tested. For very practical economic reasons, villagers are reluctant to admit their "wealth", prefering to hide animals and risk disease than lose potential financial aid.

But villagers also keep closed-mouthed about their herds as a means of avoiding pasturage fees. Since land became privatized, pasturage must be paid for.

In the village of Arutch, for example, cattlemen must pay 30 drams a year for each sheep (about 5 cents) and 100 drams (about 15 cents) for each cow. Heads of villages keep documentation of the payment and have an "official" account of each head of cattle; and it is that number that is used for estimating veterinary needs.

But the official count primarily relies on the honor system. And it is a system liable to breakdown.

"I visit all houses and ask people how many animals they have," says the head of the Arutch village. "They say the number but don't you think that I'm going to enter each cattle-shed to check their information? I send figures to Ashtarak and they send me vaccines based on the figures I had sent them before."

The leader adds that the veterinarians bring additional medicines to allow for extras that might not appear on the offical list.

Like in other regions of Armenia, in Ashtarak almost no tests are made for detecting brucellosis in small cattle.

"When they come for taking blood tests they take tests only from the great cattle," says farmer Mihran Manukyan, who has 14 cows and 14 sheep. "They don't test the sheep and I don't offer them."

Veterinarians of Ashtarak Veterinary Service also confess that they don't' take blood tests for detecting brucellosis from all heads of small cattle.

"I can say that small cattle are almost not tested in Armenia," says Vardapetyan. "Heads of great cattle have their own names and when blood tests are taken names of animals are written down in the documents and then names of their owners. Small cattle have no marks or signs. Tickets with numbers must be attached to each head of small cattle which will make taking blood tests easier and only in that case it will become possible to prevent brucellosis."

Forty years ago Soviet Armenia adopted a procedure for preventing brucellosis. If an animal was determined to have brucellosis, it was to be killed, the area disinfected, and all other cattle given blood test four times a year. (In places where no brucellosis had been detected, cattle must have been tested twice a year). However, that order was not carried out.

But these days, blood tests are not taken even twice a year - even in the places where brucellosis has been found.

"If we rated the struggle against brucellosis using a 10-point system, I would rate it with one point, 10 percent," says Grigoryan. "If you clear brucellosis from one village and don't do the same in another village then nothing will help and there won't be any results. Serious veterinary and sanitary measures must be taken."

During Soviet times there were special slaughter houses for destroying sick animals. Now, however, left to their own judgements, farmers often slaughter sick animals and take the meat to market.

And often, infected milkcows are not slaughtered, because they are only sources of income.

Every morning Veterinary Security Centers test meat in shops and restaurants and only after giving proper documents telling that meat is not infected, can it be sold. These measures, however, don't include tests for brucellosis.

"After boiling meat infected with brucellosis you can eat it," says head of the Laboratory of Komitas market Vahram Gerkyan. However he avoids telling whether it's safe to make cutlets from that meat.

"Meat of animals sick with brucellosis must not be sold," says professor Grigoryan, "according to order it must be liquidated. But how can one liquidate it if there are no conditions for that? A villager slaughters his animal in his yard and takes it for sale and that's how disease is spread."

Though infected meat has been traced to some farmers, no one has been prosecuted. But neither is their any system in place (as in Western countries) for compensating a farmer who loses livestock to disease.

"Let them pay me the price of my cow, then I won't sell this meat," said one villager who knowingly took meat from a sick cow to sell in Yerevan.


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