Bird Flu Hits the Caucasus

The Azerbaijani government denies reports of deaths linked to the virus.

Bird Flu Hits the Caucasus

The Azerbaijani government denies reports of deaths linked to the virus.

Since bird flu reached Azerbaijan last week, the rest of the Caucasus has been gripped by anxiety about the virus.

Although no cases of human infection with the deadly H5N1 virus have been officially confirmed in Azerbaijan yet, people have stopped eating chicken. In Dagestan to the north, by contrast, consumers appear more fatalistic.

The virus was first identified in dead migrating birds found on Azerbaijan’s Caspian shoreline on February 9. Tests in a London proved confirmed positive.

A few days later, 15 more wild birds were found dead in the Ceyranbatan reservoir that provides most of the water for the capital Baku. Further reports of dead birds started coming in from the Khachmaz, Samukh and Fizuli districts.

To curb the spread of bird flu, President Ilham Aliev set up a state commission headed by deputy prime minister Abbas Abbasov. So far, the state commission's activities have been limited to collecting samples from dead birds and sending them off for examination at laboratories in Europe and Egypt. No preventive measures have been taken to date.

The opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat heightened fears by reporting that three people had already died of bird flu, accusing the government of concealing the facts.

A parliamentary deputy who is part of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Council of Europe told IWPR, on condition of anonymity, that he has obtained reliable information that a young man from the island of Pirallakhi near Baku has died of bird flu. He said that the authorities were concealing this to avert an international ban on Azerbaijani produce.

Health Minister Oktay Siraliev has denied that anyone is infected with the bird flu virus, although he did say that three hospitals in the capital have made provision for a possible epidemic.

According to health ministry spokeswoman Samaya Mamedova, two residents of Pirallakhi, sisters Inara and Tukezban Gasymova, were been taken to a hospital with isolation facilities on February 12. Although they had high temperatures when they were admitted, they were later discharged at the request of relatives, and both are in a satisfactory state of health, said Mamedova.

As demand has fallen away, the poultry trade has been hard hit, and the price of beef and lamb have almost doubled. "That suits the meat salesmen very well," said Tarana Seidova, a mother of three. “They immediately raised the price of one kilogram of beef from 15,000 to 19,000 [old] manats [from 3.20 to 4.10 US dollars]. The government should take some measures, otherwise we’ll die of hunger if not flu.”

As a result of the panic, government-run poultry farms and private farmers have incurred colossal losses over the past week. Gasym Bairamov, director of a large poultry company called Mardakan Broiler, said his firm has halted sales. Tofik Tagiev, chairman of the Goradil Gusculug company, complained that the public was being misled into panic. "The public is being given incorrect information for the sake of sensation,” he said. “I can reassure you that all our chickens are quite healthy.”

In the southern Massali district, farmers who slaughtered their chickens after H5N1 was found in the region say the government is now ignoring them. Local farmer Eyub Ganiev is demanding compensation from the authorities. "The government in Turkey is paying good compensation for slaughtered birds. No one cares about us," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Abbasov, in charge of combating the spread of the virus, admitted to IWPR that the Azerbaijani government had not yet considered the issue of compensation. He said the agriculture ministry had been allocated around 850,000 US dollars to combat bird flu, but that in reality it would take 16 million dollars to tackle the problem effectively.

On February 14, Russia imposed restrictions on imports of live birds, incubatory eggs, poultry flesh and other products from Azerbaijan.

Numbers of migratory birds have been found dead in Dagestan, the Russian region adjacent to Azerbaijan. More than 300,000 chickens were killed in the Karabudakhkent district, although the local authorities have denied this had anything to do with was due to bird flu.

People in Dagestan, who live with chronic political violence, show little sign of being scared at the prospect of bird flu. Poultry is freely available at the markets, and game birds are also on sale even though the government has banned hunting because of the virus.

"We eat them ourselves," said Zaidat, a market trader in the southern town of Derbent. In confirmation, she lifted the cover of a pan with a chicken cooking away inside. "Sick chickens never have such good colour."

To the west of Azerbaijan, Armenia has also been gripped by panic about the advance of avian flu. According to Grigory Bagiyan, the head of the government’s veterinary inspectorate, the virus has not yet been recorded there. In January, the government asked the World Bank for four million dollars to buy laboratory equipment to test for the virus. Over the last week, there have been reports of a preventive cull of wild birds in Armenia.

Sevinj Telmanqizi is a reporter for Yeni Musavat newspaper in Baku. Rinat Turabov is a reporter for MK Dagestan.
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