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Central Asia: Is The Region Doing Enough To Prevent Bird-Flu Outbreaks?

Staff at the Kyrgyz Health Ministry's state virological laboratory on 16 January (Courtesy Photo) Prague, 11 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As China and Turkey work to contain outbreaks of the deadly bird flu (avian influenza), questions arise about what is happening in the lands between those two countries.

In Tajikistan on 10 January, the sanitary and epidemiological center announced a ban on the import of poultry from Turkey, where bird flu has been registered in several areas. While this may seem like common sense, it is actually one of the first publicized measures taken by a Central Asian government.

Overwhelmingly Rural

Nearly two-thirds of the population of Central Asia live in rural areas. All the cases in Asia, and those in Europe, were discovered in such areas. The leader of the World Health Organization team in Turkey, Guenael Rodier, pointed this out while speaking in Ankara on 10 January.

"Any countries in the regions which have situations in the rural areas similar to what we have here in Turkey could obviously have some diseases in animals and potentially in humans and that requires to strengthen surveillance systems both for humans and animals and to take all the measures necessary to control diseases in animals," Rodier said.

International health organizations say that the best way to prevent the spread of bird flu is early detection and quick isolation of diseased fowl. Of course, this assumes that people living in rural areas know what to look for.

Secretive Turkmenistan

The government in Turkmenistan seems not to be informing its population about the threat at all. "Some people say their birds have died, and they don’t the reason behind this mass death. People have even eaten the meat of those sick birds," a witness said.

Researchers say that people do not contract bird flu from well-cooked eggs or meat. But people can contact the disease by handling infected birds or their carcasses. Few people in Turkmenistan are likely to know that because there has been nothing in print or on the radio or television about bird flu. The government has not informed people about the disease, its symptoms or causes.

However, one hunter in Turkmenistan said the government is requiring that all hunters hand over four or five birds to local health authorities for inspection.

Kyrgyz Uninformed

In Kyrgyzstan, people are aware of bird flu but aren’t sure what their government is doing to meet any threats. One woman in Bishkek could only say she knew bird flu was dangerous but not much more. "This is a bad disease. I have heard that this is a very dangerous because it might infect our people," she said.

Another woman has heard foreign aid is being given to Kyrgyzstan but knew no details. "We have heard that there is various help, injections and vaccines against bird flu coming from abroad, but it would be better if our own government would think of it as well," she told RFE/RL.

Talant Uzakbaev, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s veterinary department, confirmed that outside parties are helping the country.

"The grant from the World Bank consists of two parts: one is from the World Bank itself and another is from Japan," he said. "About $2.7 million has been given by the World Bank and about $500,000 by Japan. This money is just a grant, not a loan."

Uzakbaev added that the Kyrgyz government has not allocated any money from the state budget for preventing the spread of bird flu.

On 10 January, the Kyrgyz news agency Kabar reported the outbreak in Turkey, but didn’t mention if there were any concerns in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government says it contacted Kyrgyz students in Turkey to warn them to avoid contact with animals, especially poultry.

Panic In Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan already experienced a panic last fall when people in neighboring regions of Russia came down with bird flu. People were hospitalized in Kazakhstan and health officials there quarantined those areas but there was never any confirmation that it was bird flu. There has not been any official news of it since.

Details from Uzbekistan are sketchy but some foreign news agencies reported that authorities have strengthened customs checks at all major airports and along borders. Guards at checkpoints along the highway from Samarkand to Tashkent have been instructed to keep a special lookout for poultry or eggs in vehicles.

However, as elsewhere in Central Asia, there has been no public-information campaign to instruct the public how to help prevent the spread of the disease or how to protect themselves from it.

(RFE/RL’s Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report)

Affected Areas

Affected Areas

Click on the map for a closer view of the areas within RFE/RL's broadcast region where cases of diseased fowl have been confirmed. Last updated on February 20.

BIRD FLU, or avian influenza, continues to menace scattered areas from East Asia, where the disease first appeared, to Southeastern and Eastern Europe and beyond. Authorities around the world are bracing themselves -- and, more importantly, planning and taking measures to fight the disease wherever it appears.

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