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Bird Flu: Interview With UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Erwin Northoff

As reports of the spread of bird flu mount, many have expressed concern about the ability of Central Asian countries to come to grips with the problem. There have also been concerns that the notoriously closed regime in Turkmenistan might be less than forthcoming about any outbreaks there. RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Muhammad Tahir spoke with Erwin Northoff, news coordinator for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), on 12 January about the challenges facing Central Asian countries coping with bird flu.

RFE/RL: What is the possibility of any outbreak in Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, since those countries have very close ties with Turkey?

Erwin Northoff: Well, it is very difficult to speculate. The risk is there, and once there is a risk you have to take preparatory measures. And you have to prepare yourselves. This is what we are calling upon countries, governments, Agriculture ministries, veterinary services, and farmers [to do] -- they should know about the risks and the measures they should take to do everything so that whenever there is an outbreak, it should be reported immediately to veterinary services. And they should take and apply measures that are internationally recommended and accepted. The major measures are that, whenever an outbreak occurs, animals should be slaughtered, culled, and -- if and when appropriate -- there should be vaccination also involved in the outbreak areas.

For farmers and people, it is very important to know that whenever they detect sick animals, they should report it; and they should also try to avoid any contact with the sick animal. There is no reason to panic -- that is also important to say. We are still talking about an animal disease. Yes, human beings have died and they have become infected and there is a risk, especially when you get in direct contact with infected or sick animals. So that is something that really needs to be avoided.

RFE/RL: We have received some unconfirmed reports from some parts of Turkmenistan about mass deaths of birds and chickens. Do you as an organization have any information about this?

Northoff: No, I'm not aware of these events or incidents. Whenever it happens that there is a suspected outbreak, the veterinary authorities have to make tests, laboratory tests, and then they find out if they can confirm or not confirm that the deadly bird-flu virus is spreading there. That needs to be done by the authorities and the laboratories in the country together with internationally respected reference laboratories. And then they would also need to inform the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris.

RFE/RL: As you mentioned, they have to take measures against bird flu. Have you heard anything about preparations against possible outbreaks in Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan?

Northoff: I know that countries neighboring Turkey are already taking precautionary measures. They are, for instance, monitoring the movement of animals across borders. There is disinfection going on, so some countries are taking the first measures. I'm not in a position to say what individual countries are doing to be on alert, but there are regional networks where countries are sharing their experiences, and I'm pretty confident that countries are taking the initiative now after the warning was issued.

RFE/RL: So what was the warning?

Northoff: The FAO warned yesterday that there is a high risk that bird flu will become endemic in Turkey -- I'm saying "risk" because we don't have confirmation yet, but the virus is probably widely spread. And so it needs more efforts to combat the disease. We also issued a statement saying that neighboring countries should be on high alert and should take appropriate measures and prepare themselves for possible outbreaks in their poultry flock.

RFE/RL: Has your organization tried to approach those countries about taking any measures after issuing the statement you mentioned?

Northoff: We have, for several months, said that bird flu is an international problem and it needs an international response and that countries should be aware and be prepared. It proves now that the virus seems to spread and that there is a need for countries to get ready and to face this challenge. So for several months we have been saying -- and we have also developed international guidelines and we are offering advice -- to countries to get prepared and to face this challenge.