Diagnostic Lab To Break New Ground

May 12, 2004

By Andranik Michaelian, Yerevan, Armenia

Yerevan, Armenia — In a project that stands to benefit agriculture in Armenia for years to come, the Fresno, California-based Armenian Technology Group (ATG) has initiated a program that could boost the economy and improve the political atmosphere of the entire Caucasus. Working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and USDA, ATG has proposed the introduction of a Veterinary laboratory that would test diseases that can pass from animals to humans through the food chain.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the veterinary and laboratory systems of Armenia collapsed, negatively affecting food safety and public health in Armenia. According to Anoushavan Aghajanyan, head of the Department of Veterinary Service of Armenia, this system has been rebuilt from the ground floor. “We want to modernize our testing capabilities,” Aghajanyan stated. “This could be possible with the establishment of the Central Diagnostic Lab ATG is proposing.”

Currently, the government veterinary laboratory, located in the Erebuni district of Yerevan, tests for certain bacterial diseases, including salmonella. New emphasis has been placed on widening the testing to include a larger range of diseases. “We don’t have the capabilities to test for mad cow disease or bird flu,” Aghajanyan said. “With the close cooperation of ATG, including the establishment of the Central Diagnostic Lab and setting it up on government premises, our system can include the testing of these and other diseases.”

The goal of Aghajanyan and others working in the government laboratory system is to raise the level of zoonotic testing in Armenia to European and American standards. “With the new lab, this can become a reality,” Aghajanyan said. For importing meat, the Central Diagnostic Lab (CDL) is vital. “We can test the entire histopathology of the animal with CDL,” Aghajanyan continued. “By studying the tissues of all organs, we will be able to find out more about the illnesses.”

Lab to benefit remote regions

The importance of the diagnostic lab was further emphasized during a visit in the spring of 2004 by ATG vice-president and doctor of veterinary medicine James Reynolds, who journeyed to the village of Aygoot with a small group of ATG professionals to investigate the illnesses of cattle that were becoming weak and even dying while giving birth.

Aygoot, formerly populated by Azeri Turks, is located north of Lake Sevan, not far from the border with Azerbaijan. The village, now populated by Armenians forcibly emigrated from the plains of Karabagh, has largely depended on foreign assistance in establishing its agricultural economy. A milk container, capable of storing large quantities of milk and insuring the use of all milk produced in the village, was recently donated to the farmers of Aygoot. During the visit, discussions centered on the nutrition of the cattle feed being used, and the use of Vitamin A shots to prevent disease and promote the animals’ health. “It became apparent that the animals could be receiving toxic amounts of Vitamin A,” Reynolds stated. “With CDL in place, we could test the sick animals and clarify any doubts about use of the vitamin and the issue of nutrition.”

While in the village, a winter forage program was formulated, with the production of alfalfa and sanfoin to improve nutrition and, in turn, the health of the cattle and other animals raised in Aygoot. Follow-up visits to Aygoot are planned, in keeping with ATG’s goal of strengthening the agricultural economy of remote regions in Armenia.

Vital role of extended CDL testing noted

At the Hrashk (Miracle) dairy on the outskirts of Yerevan, dairy manager Vannik Soghomonyan stressed the need for the establishment of CDL in or near Yerevan. “We produce milk and dairy products of the highest standard,” Soghomonyan said. “We want to produce products which will be certified as organic. The CDL can be the first step in this direction.”

The dairy employs two full-time veterinarians, who send an analysis to the government laboratory if an animal becomes ill. “Currently, between six and eight diseases are tested for at the laboratory,” Soghomonyan, also president of the Dairy Farmers of Armenia, said. “The CDL would be more advanced, meeting European standards and opening new markets for our products.”

Advanced testing would also make it possible to expand Armenia’s agricultural economy, as in the case of the Agro Holding company, located in the earthquake zone near Spitak. There, in an Italian-built complex on hills overlooking Spitak, pig farmers are waiting for the establishment of the CDL before enlarging their operations, noting that government laboratories lack the capacity to test on such a large scale.

ATG, ag agency collaboration gives CDL boost

While in Yerevan, Dr. Reynolds met with USDA and USAID officials, discussing the need for the CDL and the positive benefits its implementation would have for Armenia and the entire region. Meeting with Trevor Gudie of the US Embassy in Armenia, Reynolds pointed out that the CDL would bring veterinary diagnostics to Western standards, where the approach is to ask, “What does this animal have?” as opposed to looking for certain diseases. “We must work with the purpose of finding and preventing diseases that affect society,” Reynolds said.

During his trip to Armenia, Reynolds visited several USDA projects where different methods of grazing are being studied. The projects stress the grazing of cattle and other animals instead of the Soviet method of keeping animals indoors most of the year. “The CDL has to be coordinated with the livestock system,” Reynolds said. “That is where ATG has a distinct advantage, due to their extensive work in livestock and agriculture in Armenia.”

ATG’s experience in animal breeding has also impressed Armenian agriculture minister Davit Lokian, who has asked USAID to facilitate the establishment of the CDL, under the stewardship of ATG.

CDL to strengthen economy, political ties

As the concept of the Central Diagnostic Lab becomes reality, the positive affects will go far beyond disease control. Since the CDL tests so widely, including both animal tissue and milk, diseases will be found in their earliest stages, resulting in increased production of milk and other agricultural products.

As the ATG-sponsored milk containers (cooling containers) are put in place in rural villages, the role of the CDL will be even more important, as it will test for bacterial diseases such as salmonella and brucella. The CDL testing capabilities are so advanced that when testing animal tissue for salmonella, the lab can find out when the animal contracted the disease, before or after it became sick.

With the establishment of the lab, other livestock will be protected, even animals crossing borders, a situation in which diseases such as tuberculosis and anthrax can be passed from one country to another. As the presence of these diseases diminish, markets will open up, increasing trade and promoting good will in the Caucasus. With the proper certification of Armenia’s agricultural products, Armenia will proudly take its place in international markets, increasing income for Armenian merchants and the farmers of Armenia.

For more information about how you can help Armenia’s farmers, contact the ATG office at (559) 224-1000 or by e-mail (info@atgusa.org). Tax-deductible donations can be sent to ATG; 1300 E. Shaw, Suite 149; P.O.Box 5969; Fresno, CA 93755-5969.
You may also donate to ATG online.