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Analysis: Turkmenistan Jumps From Regional Pariah To Regional Health Risk With Home Remedies For Animal Diseases

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service has reported that cattle are dying in the country from an ailment that local veterinarians have diagnosed as tuberculosis. (file photo)

Those who have observed Turkmenistan for even a few years have become accustomed to the eccentric and often ludicrous antics and decrees of the country's authoritarian president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

His gross mismanagement of the economy and scant regard for the welfare of his own people are tolerated by the wider world to some degree because it is all confined inside Turkmenistan.

Berdymukhammedov has not really harmed other countries but, ironically, the man who likes to be called "Arkadag," or "the Protector," makes life for his own people very difficult.

An example of this is Turkmenistan's failure to produce or import sufficient medicines for the population. Instead, Turkmen are urged to read a book allegedly written by Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan's Medicinal Plants, about herbal treatments that can be found in the mostly desert country of some 5.6 million people.

But the advice from state television last week that dangerous animal diseases can be cured using the same herbal treatments marks a new stage in irresponsible behavior from the mercurial Berdymukhammedov and his government because zoonotic diseases cannot be confined within Turkmenistan.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)

The World Health Organization explains in its Joint External Evaluation of IHR Core Capacities of Turkmenistan, Mission 2016 report, "Zoonotic diseases are communicable diseases that can spread between animals and humans." The report continues, "Approximately 75% of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are of animal origin; and approximately 60% of all human pathogens are zoonotic."

Ebola, avian influenza (bird flu), anthrax, salmonella, and dozens of other diseases are zoonotic diseases, spread among animals and sometimes transmitted to humans.

Livestock With TB

The herbal remedies Turkmen authorities are proposing are unlikely to have much effect in preventing the contraction and spread of such diseases. If these remedies did work, there would be no need for vaccinations using modern medicines.

More importantly, Turkmen authorities can restrict the movement of its people, but they cannot restrict the movement of birds, small rodents, and other creatures of the desert, or even sheep or cattle from straying near or over the border into neighboring countries.

And it is already clear that animal diseases are present and spreading in Turkmenistan, a problem that is compounded by scarcity and subsequent high prices for animal feed.

In October, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported that cattle in Mary Province were dying, apparently from liver damage. Local veterinarians diagnosed the cause as tuberculosis.

In June, cattle in the southern Ahal Province were dying off. Local veterinarians ascribed the cause of death to piroplasmosis (Babesia, also known as Texas cattle fever or red tick fever), a parasite often spread by ticks.

The same local veterinarians said that, if the outbreak of the disease had been detected earlier, it would have been possible to stem the spread. This points to a breakdown in Turkmenistan's warning systems for identifying, isolating, and treating outbreaks.

In March, camels in Turkmenistan's western Balkan Province started dying off. Officials did not say anything about the cause. Locals thought it was from smallpox.

Balkan residents believed it was smallpox because in October 2018, the disease struck hard, again, killing camels but also spreading to people, several of whom were admitted to hospitals and treated for the virus.

Herds Slaughtered

In late 2016 and early 2017, cattle and chickens in the northern Dashoguz Province were dying. Local veterinarians said it was likely from anthrax, but again, authorities in Ashgabat did not comment on the cause.

There have been other cases involving farm animals in Turkmenistan in the last three years. Sometimes, owners recognized the imminent demise of their herds and chose to slaughter the animals and sell the contaminated meat at bazaars rather than face a total loss of their livestock.

Turkmenistan has been suffering the past four years through an extreme economic crisis that officials have refuse to publicly admit. This has resulted in long lines for many foodstuffs, so the sudden availability of meat is often difficult for residents to pass up, even if they have doubts about its origins.

According to the Joint External Evaluation for Turkmenistan from June 2016, Turkmenistan has a "comprehensive intersectoral plan" to counter zoonotic infections that runs from 2016 to 2020 but the report names only brucellosis and rabies as the diseases involved.

Turkmen television's advice to use Berdymukhammedov's herbal treatments for animals is the equivalent of announcing the government has no intention of spending money on animal vaccinations. It makes Turkmenistan an incubator for zoonotic diseases and threatens herds, and therefore people, in neighboring countries as well as in Turkmenistan.

And the greater tragedy is that Turkmenistan has the money to pay for vaccines and medicines for animals – as well as for people. The Economist reported in July 2018 that there were at least $23 billion in accounts in Germany that belonged to someone in Turkmenistan.

Berdymukhammedov has even ordered a 15-meter high statue of Turkmenistan's national dog – the alabai -- to be built in Ashgabat by June. Just the money spent on this latest eyesore for the capital would likely pay for inoculations for many of the farm animals in Turkmenistan.

The utter disdain Berdymukhammedov shows towards Turkmenistan's people might be a source of amazement, amusement, or curiosity to people in neighboring countries, but those countries will soon need to double their sanitary watch along the Turkmen border to ensure their own farm animals and people do not become victims of Arkadag's latest folly.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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