Armenia: Child Defect Scourge

A wave of birth abnormalities afflicts a small industrial Armenian town.

Armenia: Child Defect Scourge

A wave of birth abnormalities afflicts a small industrial Armenian town.

On October 22, Anahit Hakobian, 22, (not her real name) had to terminate her pregnancy because her doctor told her after an ultrasound scan of the foetus that it had anencephaly, an incurable defect.

"The child did not have part of the brain.... Anahit was in her seventh month of pregnancy, so we had to induce premature delivery artificially," said Roza Machkalian, head of the women's consultation department at the Alaverdi maternity hospital

Several doctors say that similar defects have become quite common in Alaverdi and surrounding villages of late. Local people blame harmful emissions from a local factory – a charge the factory rejects. No independent study has so far proved the cause of the defects.

"Doctor, is my child normal?" asked a young pregnant woman who came for a check-up, trying to discern something on the ultrasound display. Roza Machkalian commented that this is the question that pregnant women in Alaverdi ask most frequently.

Amalia Azatian, head doctor with the Alaverdi maternity hospital, said that she is often asked at the Armenian health ministry when she submits her annual reports why there are so many children and foeti with abnormalities in her town.

"I do not have an answer to this question because no full analysis has been made,” she said. “However, I am sure that environmental pollution has played its role here. This has an impact on people in general and pregnant women are more sensitive, never mind foeti.

"The situation is disastrous this year. We found pronounced defects that we hadn’t encountered before."

Azatian said that the health ministry had installed ultrasound monitors in their hospital so late abortions can now be avoided.

She said that among the birth defects they had encountered were hydrocephaly (when a foetus has water instead of brain), anencephaly (when the front part of the head is there but the rear is not) and lesser defects such as cleft palate and harelip.

Alaverdi is situated 190 kilometres to the north of Yerevan. The official population of the town is 22,000 but the real figure may only be a quarter of that due to emigration. In Soviet times, it was a major centre for the production of non-ferrous metals.

The ACP copper-smelting plant is the only functioning factory in the town and provides jobs for 500 people. Prior to independence, it had ten times that number of employers.

The factory was closed in 1989 as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and environmental concerns. However, it started up again in 1996. "Currently, the plant is operating at half capacity,” said Andranik Gambarian, spokesman for the copper-smelting plant, the Alaverdi Armenian Copper Programme.

Environmentalists and health professionals say that the plant provides the explanation for the health problems in the small town. Sulphuric anhydride is emitted through a 100-metre chimney and trees, bushes, and grass around the plant are withered. They point out that health ministry data suggests there were no birth anomalies recorded in Alaverdi in 1992, when the factory was idle but that in 2001, 28 cases of defects were registered and the corresponding figure in 2004 was 107.

The factory says that a direct link has not been proved between poor health and its emissions. "The data [on defects] is false," said Gambarian. "No one can deny that there are emissions but they are doing no harm. People are spreading rumours like this out of envy, as ten times fewer people are employed at the plant now than in previous years and some have remained unemployed."

The ministry for environmental protection confirmed that the annual emission of dangerous substances from the Alaverdi plant exceeds admissible standards. But the ministry is not implementing any environmental programmes there.

The picture is complicated by the fact that Armenia’s general record of congenital abnormalities is poor and only Kyrgyzstan has a worse record in the former Soviet Union, according to the World Health Organisation.

"Between 1980-2004, the number of congenital defects doubled in Armenia," said Yelena Manvelian, chairwoman of the Armenian Woman for Health and Healthy Environment organisation. "This problem should be resolved immediately. It will be too late tomorrow. We should save our gene pool. We should sound the alarm now. And Alaverdi is one of the most dangerous places."

Health ministry official Gayane Avagian, who works as chief specialist for the Child and Mother’s Health Department, said she had no doubt that toxic emissions were to blame for the problems.

"Of course, the occurrence of anomalies is linked to environmental pollution, as almost all the substances can cause defects in human organisms," she said.

However, Avagian admitted that her ministry is unable to resolve this problem on its own and needs help from other parts of government.

Notwithstanding the concerns about the plant,

Larisa Paremuzian, chairwoman of the Women's Support Centre in Alaverdi, said there was some local ambivalence towards it.

She said that when the plant closed down in 1988 the environment began improving noticeably – but that at the same time, deprived of the town’s main source of employment, many locals began to emigrate because there were no jobs.

Marianna Grigorian is a reporter with the news website,
Kyrgyzstan, Armenia
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