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Iran: Officials Say No Bird Flu

By Vahid Sepehri

With no confirmed reports of an outbreak of bird flu in Iran, Iranian officials believe the country is free so far of a virus potentially fatal to humans. But they fear it may arrive soon, brought in by migratory birds flying south to spend the winter in Iran's temperate climate and swamps.

Official statements, at times contradictory, have indicated a cautious satisfaction with the situation so far. On 2 October, the head of the disease-management department at the Health Ministry, Mohammad Mehdi Guya, told ILNA that "no cases of bird flu have been reported in Iran," rejecting reports to the contrary from the northern Mazandaran province.
Mazandaran's chief veterinary officer, Hussein Rezvani, had said earlier that "traces" of the virus had been found in the blood of migrating birds, though he said local tests would have to be confirmed by the State Veterinary Organization in Tehran, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 3 October. He said there seemed to be no problem in poultry farms. On 23 October, ISNA reported the suspect deaths of some 5,000 wild birds in the West Azerbaijan province, near Turkey, adding that officials were sending relevant samples to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) for more tests. Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani told ILNA on 26 October that Iran is not sure why those birds died; World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Tehran, Mubashar Riaz Sheikh, told IRNA on 24 October that tests on them for the deadly H5N1 virus "have all been negative."
Reported testing indicates that Iran has begun to monitor its birds. Ismail Mohajer, the chief environmental officer of the northeastern Golestan province, told Fars on 10 October that his office was testing wild birds weekly, "and so far the results of all these tests have been negative." A deputy head of the State Veterinary Organization, Said Charkhkar, said on 17 October that there have been suspected cases of bird flu in "Mazandaran, Gilan, Azerbaijan [provinces] and one case in Sistan-Baluchistan [near Pakistan]," but that tests have not detected the bird flu virus, Fars reported. He said "a system to watch avian flu is active across the country, and no case...has been confirmed."
New Steps
The country is also taking preventive measures. Ismail Mohajer said on 10 October that Golestan province, a popular hunting zone, would issue no more permits to shoot wild birds while fears persist. He advised people not to buy or eat wild bird meat. On 23 October, ISNA cited an unnamed official as reporting a ban "until further notice" of "the hunting, fishing or live capture of all birds in marine and swamp areas across the country." Deputy Health Minister Muayyed Alavian told ISNA on 17 October that the ministry was giving information on bird flu to people living in northern frontier provinces, even if "we cannot prevent bird flu entering the country." If it does, "and dead birds are found near residential areas, contact with dead birds and contagion will become more likely," he said.
Separately, all vehicles entering Iran through the country's northwestern frontier would be "totally disinfected," for which task "an enormous budget" has been set aside, ISNA cited an unnamed official as saying on 23 October. The virus has reportedly appeared in Turkey.
On 11 and 22 October, Medical Education Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani mentioned the formation of a State Committee to Fight Avian Flu, tasked with coordinating preventive efforts by the Health and Agriculture Jihad ministries, the state environmental and veterinary bodies, and "other related bodies," Fars reported. The State Veterinary Organization, he said on 11 October, had thus far prevented any infection of domestic poultry, and the Health Ministry would deal with human infections.
Another preventive measure is a vaccine. Deputy Health Minister Alavian told ISNA on 17 October that the country has a vaccine he did not name for distribution among people working on poultry farms or shooting birds. Baqeri-Lankarani told Fars on 22 October that Tamiflu, a common flu medicine, would be used. He was hopeful this will prevent any modified bird flu virus spreading among people, though "fortunately there has yet to be such a case." The Agriculture Jihad Ministry has prepared and imported an unnamed vaccine for birds, he added. On 26 October, he told ILNA Iran has bought "sufficient quantities of bird flu medicine, enough for the country's needs," without giving details.
While there are no confirmed cases, Said Charkhkar of the State Veterinary Organization said on 17 October that "the threat...exists and we are waiting for the disease to emerge, because wild birds will gradually enter the country and [bird flu] may come into the country at any time," Fars reported. The WHO's Mubashar Riaz Sheikh told IRNA on 24 October Iran is currently among the UN body's category C countries: it has no confirmed cases, but needs to be vigilant.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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