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