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Tajikistan

Tajikistan - US Consular Information Sheet
December 9, 2008
COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: Tajikistan remains the poorest of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
It is a nominally constitutional, democratic, and secular republic, dominated b
President Emomali Rahmon who has been in power since 1992.
Tourist facilities are undeveloped and many goods and services usually available in other countries are unavailable.
Read the Department of State Background Notes on Tajikistan for additional information.

ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS:
A valid passport and visa are required to enter and exit Tajikistan, as well as for registration at hotels.
The visa should be valid for the entire period of stay in country, through departure, and travelers should ideally request visas which allow for changing travel dates.
Failure to produce a valid visa will require the traveler to leave the country immediately.
Travelers planning to arrive in Tajikistan from countries that have Tajik embassies or consulates must obtain Tajik visas abroad prior to their travel.
Tajikistan is represented by embassies and consulates in the following countries:
United States of America, United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, China, Afghanistan (Kabul, Mazori Sharif), Iran, Pakistan, India, Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates (Dubai).
Travelers arriving in Tajikistan from countries in which there are no Tajik embassies or consulates must have Tajik visa support, in the form of a letter from the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) confirming that a visa may be issued, in order to receive a Tajik visa at the Dushanbe International Airport upon arrival.
Travelers need to have two passport-size photos and a passport valid for at least six months longer than the duration of the planned stay in Tajikistan.
Visas issued at the Dushanbe airport are normally valid for only 45 days.
This “upon arrival” visa service does not apply to any other Tajik airports or land borders.

Travelers staying in Tajikistan three days or longer must, within three days of arrival in Tajikistan, obtain registration stamps at the MFA or the Department of Visas and Registration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (OVIR), depending on whether the purpose of the visit to Tajikistan is for official or personal travel.
Immigration authorities may deny the departure of travelers who failed to register their visas until after they have paid a fine and obtained the registration stamps at the MFA or OVIR.

In order to receive visa support, an organization inviting a traveler to Tajikistan must submit a request to the MFA at least two weeks in advance of the planned travel date to Tajikistan.
Persons planning to arrive in Tajikistan at the invitation of a private Tajik resident (e.g., a friend or relative in Tajikistan) need to obtain a notification letter from OVIR.
According to OVIR, it may take up to 45 days to obtain the notification letter.
The MFA will issue Tajik visa support on the basis of the OVIR notification letter.
The inviting party will send a copy of visa support to the traveler.
The original MFA visa support will be sent to the Consular bureau at Dushanbe airport.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, persons traveling at the invitation of Tajik organizations or travel agencies, who are applying for visas at Tajik embassies or consulates abroad, will be able to obtain single-entry Tajik visas valid for 45 days upon direct submission of their visa request to the Tajik embassy or consulate (without a visa support letter).
With the issuance of visa support, travelers applying for visas at Tajik embassies or consulates abroad will be able to obtain multiple-entry visas valid for a maximum of three months.
Travelers who would like their visas extended need to apply for extension in advance through the MFA (official travelers) or OVIR (tourist or commercial travelers).
Entry into the Gorno-Badakhshan region, both from inside and outside of Tajikistan, requires special authorization in advance in addition to a valid Tajik visa.
Travelers can obtain this authorization at Tajik embassies and consulates abroad, or by applying to the MFA or OVIR once in Tajikistan.
Tajik authorities advise that sponsoring organizations in Tajikistan submit requests for travel authorization for the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region at least two weeks in advance of the planned travel.
The Tajik MFA or OVIR will list the names of the settlements and cities in Gorno-Badakhshan which the traveler plans on visiting in the travel authorization stamp.
The Gorno-Badakhshan travel authorization is not written on a Tajik visa sticker; it is a separate note put in a passport.

The government of Tajikistan requires visitors who remain in country for more than 90 days to present a medical certificate showing that they are HIV-free, or to submit to an HIV test in Tajikistan.
HIV is a growing health threat in Tajikistan.

Visit the Embassy of Tajikistan web site at http://www.tjus.org for the most current visa information.

Note: Departure options from Tajikistan may be limited in an emergency.
U.S. citizens, their family members, and their dependents can maximize departure options by obtaining extended visas for travel to countries with reliable connections to Tajikistan, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Russia.
Other destinations, notably Turkey, offer several flights a week and do not require American citizens to obtain visas in advance.
Please note, however, that in emergency situations, flights may be suspended.

Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our website.
For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information Sheet.

SAFETY AND SECURITY:
Supporters of terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), al-Qaida, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement remain active in Central Asia, as do anti-Western, anti-Semitic extremist organizations such as Hizb’ut-Tahrir.
These groups have expressed anti-U.S. sentiments and may attempt to target U.S. Government or private interests in the region, including in Tajikistan.
Terrorist attacks involving the use of suicide bombers have previously taken place in neighboring Uzbekistan.
Taliban resurgence and successful operations in Afghanistan, including attacks in the north, could also affect the security situation in southern Tajikistan.

Minor explosions have occasionally occurred in Dushanbe in the last two years.
These explosions usually happen at night.
In June 2007, an individual threw a grenade at the Supreme Court building.
Witnesses and unofficial reports indicate that three guards were killed, although no official reports confirmed this.
In November 2007, a small explosive killed an individual outside the Kokhi Vahhdat conference center in the center of Dushanbe.
In both cases, no individual or organization claimed responsibility and authorities continue to investigate.
Also in November 2007, a small improvised explosive device destroyed the official car belonging to the Commander of the President’s National Guard.
Incursions along the Afghan border have resulted in shootings and kidnappings; however, most are believed to be related to narcotics trafficking.
None of these incidents have indicated the targeting of Americans or Westerners.

Criminal groups and terrorists do not distinguish between official and civilian targets.
Because of increased security at official U.S. facilities, terrorists are seeking softer civilian targets such as residential areas, clubs and restaurants, places of worship, hotels, outdoor recreation events, and other venues.
The limited number of facilities catering to Westerners presents a heightened risk.
American travelers should also avoid demonstrations and large crowds.
Demonstrations and mobs are rare in Tajikistan following the 1992-1997 civil war, and police reaction to such behavior is unpredictable.

For the latest security information, Americans traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs' web site at http://travel.state.gov, where the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts, as well as the Worldwide Caution, can be found.

Up-to-date information on safety and security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States and Canada or, for callers outside the United States and Canada, a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444.
These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

The Department of State urges American citizens to take responsibility for their own personal security while traveling overseas.
For general information about appropriate measures travelers can take to protect themselves in an overseas environment, see the Department of State’s pamphlet A Safe Trip Abroad.

CRIME:
The current crime rating for Dushanbe is high.
The primary concern is the inability of Tajikistan’s law enforcement entities to provide adequate and immediate assistance.
Lack of manpower, low salaries, and inadequate training all contribute to a lack of professionalism.
Tajikistan’s struggling economy and high unemployment have resulted in incidents of street crime, including pick pocketings, muggings and armed robberies.
Alcohol-related incidents such as bar fights and drunk driving are common.
Criminals are not deterred by the risk of confrontation and tend to operate in groups of two or more to decrease their chances of arrest.
When crimes do occur, they can be violent in nature.
Additionally, the lack of a free media, and the infrequent public outreach between the government and the public through the media, does not provide the average citizen current and accurate information to make informed decisions about safety.

Government statistics are typically inaccurate because many crimes are not reported to law enforcement organizations.
Often police refuse to open minor or routine cases that seem too difficult to resolve.
In 2007, the Ministry of Interior reported a number of arrests related to organized crime, although overall reported crimes saw a slight decrease.
The Ministry also reported a slight increase in firearm and drug-related offenses compared to previous years.

Crimes of opportunity can occur against anyone, and the Embassy reminds visitors to be careful and cautious in their own personal security, whether within the city limits of Dushanbe or in the more remote areas of the country.
Americans should be aware that danger increases after dark, and they are advised to use caution when traveling alone or on foot after dark.
The U.S. Embassy encourages visitors to travel in pairs and to notify colleagues of their whereabouts when not working, especially during evening hours.
Travelers are also encouraged to carry a copy of their passport (separate from their wallets) to speed up issuance of a new passport in case of theft.

In many countries around the world, counterfeit and pirated goods are widely available.
Transactions involving such products are illegal under local law.
In addition, bringing them back to the United States may result in forfeitures and/or fines.
More information on this serious problem is available at http://www.cybercrime.gov/18usc2320.htm.

INFORMATION FOR VICTIMS OF CRIME:
The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
If you are the victim of a crime while overseas, in addition to reporting to local police, please contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for assistance.
The Embassy/Consulate staff can, for example, assist you to find appropriate medical care, contact family members or friends and explain how funds could be transferred.
Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed.

The local equivalent to the “911” emergency line in Tajikistan is: 01 - Fire, 02 - Police, 03 - Ambulance
See our information on Victims of Crime.

MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION:
The quality of Tajikistan’s medical infrastructure is significantly below Western standards, with severe shortages of basic medical supplies, including disposable needles, anesthetics, and antibiotics.
Many trained medical personnel left the country during and following the civil war.
Elderly travelers and those with pre-existing health problems may be at particular risk due to inadequate medical facilities.

Significant disease outbreaks are possible due to population shifts and a decline in some immunization coverage among the general population.
There have been outbreaks of typhoid in the Dushanbe area and in the south, and the risk of contracting malaria, cholera, and water-borne illnesses is high.
Throughout Central Asia, rates of infection of various forms of hepatitis and tuberculosis (including drug-resistant strains) are on the rise.
Tuberculosis is an increasingly serious health concern in Tajikistan.
For further information, please consult the CDC’s Travel Notice on tuberculosis at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/yellowBookCh4-TB.aspx.
It is advised to drink only bottled or thoroughly boiled water while in Tajikistan.

The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to or foreign residents of Tajikistan.
However, the government of Tajikistan does require visitors who remain in country for more than 90 days to present a medical certificate showing that they are HIV-free, or to submit to an HIV test in Tajikistan.
HIV is a growing health threat in Tajikistan.

Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747) or via the CDC’s web site at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/default.aspx.
For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad consult the World Health Organization’s (WHO) web site at http://www.who.int/en.
Further health information for travelers is available at http://www.who.int/ith/en.
MEDICAL INSURANCE:
The Department of State strongly urges Americans to consult with their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to confirm whether their policy applies overseas and whether it will cover emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation.
Please see our information on medical insurance overseas.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS:
While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.
The information below concerning Tajikistan is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Travel to, from, and within Tajikistan is difficult and unreliable.
Neighboring countries may unilaterally close borders and some borders are poorly delineated.
Armed police or military checkpoints can make road travel outside of Dushanbe more difficult.
Crossing the Tajik-Uzbek border, in particular, has been known to present difficulties for drivers operating vehicles with non-Tajik government-issued plates.
Road travel should be undertaken only in daylight hours and on routes known to the traveler or a reliable escort.
Those traveling to Gorno-Badakhshan by car should do so only during daylight hours.
The roads traverse mountainous terrain along the Afghan border that is difficult to navigate, even in daylight hours.
Public transportation vehicles in the city are often overcrowded and not always safe.
If you are driving, be vigilant because pedestrians often tend to cross the street at inappropriate places or walk along the highway without paying attention to vehicular traffic.
Bus services between major cities have been severely disrupted by border closures and should not be relied upon.
The State Traffic Inspectorate (GAI, or in Tajiki, BDA), which has checkpoints in many cities and at regular intervals along all highways outside the city, frequently stops vehicles for inspection of the vehicle and the driver’s documents.

During the winter months, the potential dangers when traveling outside of Dushanbe in the mountainous areas of the country are heightened.
Every year, accidents and casualties occur on Tajikistan’s mountain roads and passes, often when drivers ignore warnings not to travel over a closed mountain pass.
Avalanches are a common occurrence in Tajikistan’s mountains during the winter months.
The tunnel bypassing the Anzob Pass is still not complete and travel via this construction project is not advised in any season.
Please exercise caution and limit winter travel to Tajikistan’s mountain regions.

In certain parts of the country, including in the Vakhsh and Rasht valleys and along the Afghan-Tajik border, land mines and cluster munitions form an additional hazard.
If an area has land mine warning signs, or is marked off with red and white plastic tape, heed the warning and do not venture off the road.
In all cases, do not pick up or handle anything that looks like unexploded munitions.

Emergency phone numbers in Tajikistan:
police – 02, ambulance – 03, state traffic control (GAI) duty officer – 235-45-45.
Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information.

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT:
As there is no direct commercial air service to the United States by carriers registered in Tajikistan, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed the Government of Tajikistan’s Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards.
For more information, travelers may visit the FAA’s internet website at http://www.faa.gov/safety/programs_initiatives/oversight/iasa.

SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES: Tajikistan has a cash-only economy.
International banking services are limited, but ATM machines have been installed in several locations.
Cash is dispensed in both U.S. and local currency.
Few establishments in the country accept credit cards and none accepts traveler's checks.
Tajikistan's national currency is the Somoni, which is convertible.

Tajik customs authorities may subject all items that are imported into or exported from Tajikistan to a high level of scrutiny.
The Government of Tajikistan may enforce strict customs regulations against those who import and export goods.
The export of antiques and cultural valuables requires special permission.
There are also currency restrictions.
Travelers must fill out a Customs Declaration Form upon arrival in Tajikistan, have it stamped by Tajik customs officials at the port of entry and retain the form until departure to demonstrate that the travelers are not leaving Tajikistan with more money than they brought into the country.
Please contact the Embassy of the Republic of Tajikistan in the United States, 1005 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 20037; telephone (202) 223-6090, fax:
(202) 223-6091, e-mail: tajikistan@verizon.net, web site: http://www.tjus.org for specific information about customs requirements.

The Republic of Tajikistan does not recognize dual citizenship with most countries, including the United States (one exception is with Russia, where dual citizenship is regulated by a special interstate agreement).
Dual nationals who attempt to leave Tajikistan on U.S. passports without valid Tajik visas in them are likely to have problems with immigration authorities upon departing Tajikistan.

Travelers to Tajikistan are subject to frequent document inspections by local police.
U.S. citizens are strongly encouraged to carry copies of their U.S. passports, Tajik visas, and visa registration at all times (including while traveling within Tajikistan) so that, if questioned by local officials, proof of identity,
U.S. citizenship, and valid visa status in Tajikistan are readily available.
Always check your visa and registration validity dates so that these documents can be renewed if necessary before they expire.
Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest, including many government buildings, may result in problems with the authorities.
In accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and certain bilateral agreements, local authorities must grant a U.S. consular officer access to any U.S. citizen who is arrested.
U.S. citizens who are arrested or detained should ask to contact the U.S. Embassy immediately.

Tajikistan is an earthquake-prone country.
General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at http://www.fema.gov/.

Please see our Customs Information.

CRIMINAL PENALTIES:
While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law.
Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses.
Persons violating Tajik laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned.
Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Tajikistan are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime, prosecutable in the United States.
Please see our information on Criminal Penalties.

CHILDREN'S ISSUES:
For information see our Office of Children’s Issues web pages on intercountry adoption and international parental child abduction.

REGISTRATION / EMBASSY LOCATION:
Americans living or traveling in Tajikistan are encouraged to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate through the State Department’s travel registration web site so that they can obtain updated information on travel and security within Tajikistan.
Americans without Internet access may register directly with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
By registering, American citizens make it easier for the Embassy or Consulate to contact them in case of emergency.
The U.S. Embassy is located at 109A Ismoili Somoni Avenue, Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Main Phone: 992-37-229-2000, Consular Direct Line: 992-37-229-23-00, consular e-mail dushanbeconsular@state.gov, embassy fax:
992-37-229-20-50, Duty Officer: 992-90-770-10-32, web site: http://dushanbe.usembassy.gov
* * *
This replaces the Country Specific Information for Tajikistan dated February 14, 2008, to update the sections on Entry/Exit Requirements, Crime, Aviation Safety Oversight and Registration/Embassy Location.

Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS

Date: Mon, 6 Aug 2018 06:19:37 +0200
By Akbar Borisov, with Christopher Rickleton in Almaty

Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Aug 6, 2018 (AFP) - En route to mountainous Tajikistan's "roof of the world" lies a hastily-erected memorial to four bike tourists killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group late last month.     Roses and tulips lie scattered at the tribute -- featuring a plaque inscribed in English -- in the foreground of a scrubby mountain landscape.    "We express sincere condolences on behalf of all Tajik people and Tajikistan to the families and relatives of the died tourists in our country tragically and cruelly," the plaque reads.

It was here, approximately 100 kilometres south of Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe, that American tourists Lauren Geoghegan and Jay Austin, Dutch citizen Rene Wokke and Swiss citizen Markus Hummel were fatally wounded in an attack initially reported as a hit-and-run road accident.    The attack comes as a deep blow to Tajikistan, which has been trying to promote the authoritarian country as a tourism hotspot, simplifying visa bureaucracy and even declaring 2018 "the year of tourism."

Police said the gang that attacked the group of seven tourists, injuring two others, had also stabbed their victims, while a video released via IS' official media channel indicated the attackers were inspired by the Islamist group.   "It was a tragedy," 32-year-old account manager and biking enthusiast Pau Ros told AFP ahead of a seven-day cycle over Tajikistan's legendary Pamir Highway with girlfriend Mariona Miranda.   "This happens around the world now. But we are not going to change our lives because that is what these bad people would want," said Ros, who is a native of Barcelona.

- IS-linked? -
Authorities have played down video evidence that appears to show five men -- four of whom they say were killed resisting arrest -- swearing an oath of allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.   On Friday Tajikistan's state prosecutor said the clip had been released "with the aim of deflecting suspicions from another terrorist organisation -- the Islamic Renaissance Party", a former opposition party banned by the government in 2015. 

The IRPT has refuted links to the attack, as has Iran, a country that Tajikistan has poor ties with and says provided training to a 33-year-old man called Hussein Abdusamadov, who was detained for allegedly leading the attack on the cyclists.   In a brief interview with AFP, the mother of Abdusamadov, who was shown sporting a black eye in his police photo, could not say if he had traveled to Iran but said he spoke Arabic and had worked in Russia, a migration destination for hundreds of thousands of Tajiks.   "We do not know when he came back to (Tajikistan). The police just came to our door and told us he had committed a crime," Gulchekhra Shodmonova told AFP.

Analysts have pointed to a number of reasons to doubt the official narrative linking IRPT and Iran to the attack -- chiefly a downturn in Tajikistan's relations with Iran, an intensified crackdown on the opposition since 2015 and the IS video evidence.     Mahmudjon Faizrahmon, a spokesman-in-exile for the party that has always described itself as peaceful opposition force said on Thursday that police brought his 62-year-old mother for questioning after he denied links between the party and the attack on Twitter.     In addition to Abdusamadov, Tajikistan's prosecutor says 10 people have been detained under suspicion of financing the crime and failing to supply information to police before the attack took place.

- 'Simply Cycling' -
At the US embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a simple bicycle donated by a local student provides a fitting flourish to a display honouring 29-year-old Geoghegan and Austin, whose blog Simplycycling.org was popular among other bike-the-world cyclists.   The pair whose photo stood on a table at the heart of the display described themselves as enthusiasts who fell in love with cycling in adulthood but were not above "hitching a ride when a stretch of road is dangerous or just awful."   It is uncertain how the attack from which only one tourist, a Frenchman, emerged unscathed, will affect one of the few sources of economic optimism in the poorest country to gain independence from the Soviet Union.    Tajikistan announced plans to create a "tourist police" earlier this week, but provided few details.    One representative of a Bed and Breakfast in Dushanbe told AFP that a Polish tourist who had planned on cycling the highway had flown home. 
Date: Mon, 30 Jul 2018 10:24:00 +0200

Dushanbe, Tajikistan, July 30, 2018 (AFP) - Four foreign tourists were killed in Tajikistan on Sunday by armed attackers in what was originally reported as a hit-and-run road accident, the interior minister said Monday.   "(The suspects) had knives and firearms," minister Ramazon Hamro Rahimzoda said of the attack that left tourists from the United States, Switzerland and the Netherlands dead and two others injured.
Date: Sun, 29 Jul 2018 20:22:04 +0200

Dushanbe, Tajikistan, July 29, 2018 (AFP) - Four tourists were killed and another three injured on a bike tour in southern Tajikistan on Sunday when a car hit them before fleeing the scene, authorities said.   The seven cyclists included two Americans, two Dutch nationals and three other foreigners, the interior ministry told AFP without specifying the nationalities of those who died.   However, the US embassy in Tajikistan said two of the fatalities were US citizens.

The hit-and-run accident took place in the district of Danghara, 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of the capital Dushanbe.    "Three foreigners were killed at the scene and another died in hospital," the interior ministry said, adding that three other tourists had also received medical treatment.

Authorities in the Central Asian nation announced later Sunday one arrest and the deaths of two other suspects during a special operation launched to find those responsible for the deadly hit-and-run incident.   "One person has been arrested, two others resisted arrest and have been killed," the interior ministry said, without giving further details about the suspects.   Tajikistan is the poorest of the ex-Soviet republics and has been ruled by the iron hand of President Emomali Rakhmon since 1992.
Date: Tue 7 Nov 2017
Source: UN OCHA, ReliefWeb, Int Fed of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) report [edited]

Measles outbreak DREF [Disaster Relief Emergency Fund] Operation MDRTJ025 Final Report
----------------------------------------------------------------------
A. Situation analysis
Description of the disaster
The measles epidemic in Tajikistan started in April 2017 in Rudaki district, and gradually spread to the capital city of Dushanbe and the surrounding districts, as well as Khatlon oblast. In mid-April 2017, 263 registered cases of measles were reported, out of which 157 were laboratory confirmed. By 1 May 2017, the number of notified and investigated cases rose from 263 to 345, with 246 patients (71 per cent) hospitalised. There were 2 child deaths registered over the course of the epidemic -- one in Khatlon oblast and one in the Districts of Republican Subordination).

The group most affected by the epidemic were children between 1 and 9 years of age. This also corresponded to the cohort born after the last national measles and rubella (MR) immunisation campaign conducted in 2009. Normally, the immunisation centre of the Ministry of Health and Social Protection (MoHSP) carries out immunisation on an annual basis for approx. 97 per cent of this cohort. The remaining 3 per cent -- including migrants, Roma and displaced people -- however, tends to remain non-immunised.

In response to the outbreak, the MoHSP decided to conduct a nationwide MR vaccination campaign targeting children aged 1-9 years, 15-26 May 2017, with the support of the Measles and Rubella Outbreak Response Initiative (MRI) Fund. The government of Tajikistan issued a decree on National Additional Immunisation Days in the country on 28 Apr 2017. The MoHSP issued an internal order on immunisation accordingly.
=====================
[The complete IFRC report is available at

Maps of Tajikistan can be seen at
Date: Mon, 30 Jan 2017 09:06:48 +0100

Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Jan 30, 2017 (AFP) - Authorities in Tajikistan said Monday that at least seven people were killed in a series of avalanches that hit the mountainous Central Asian country over the weekend.   Avalanches killed at least five people on a highway linking the capital Dushanbe with Khujand, Tajikistan's second largest city, the emergency services committee said.

Two more died in avalanches in the remote Pamir region in the country's east, the committee said.   Authorities said a rescue operation was ongoing and the casualty toll could continue to rise.    A spokesperson for the committee told AFP around 800 people had been evacuated Sunday following the avalanches.   Mountainous and poverty-struck Tajikistan is prone to natural disasters including avalanches, landslides and earthquakes.   In February 2015, a single avalanche claimed six lives in the east of the country.
More ...

World Travel News Headlines

Date: Tue, 20 Aug 2019 05:21:07 +0200 (METDST)

Bangkok, Aug 20, 2019 (AFP) - At least 13 Chinese tourists were killed and dozens injured when their bus skidded off the road and plunged 30 metres into a ravine in Laos, a police officer said Tuesday.   The bus was carrying more than 40 Chinese nationals heading towards the tourist town of Luang Prabang when the accident occurred late on Monday.   "At this moment, 13 bodies have been recovered... while two are still missing," police officer Xaiyaphon Chitavong told AFP, blaming brake failure for the accident.   He added that 31 people were receiving medical treatment.    Chinese state media showed photos of rescuers wading through ankle-deep floodwaters.

Traffic accidents in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar are common, with safety regulations often flouted and law enforcement low.    The monsoon season from June to October also drenches rural roads with heavy rains creating slippery conditions.   Tourism to communist-run Laos has grown in recent years, and visitors from China increased by 13 percent in the first half of 2019 compared to the year before, according to the state-backed Vientiane Times.
Date: Mon, 19 Aug 2019 20:57:15 +0200 (METDST)

Bukavu, DR Congo, Aug 19, 2019 (AFP) - A child has died from Ebola in DR Congo's South Kivu, health authorities said Monday, the second person to succumb to the virus since the epidemic spread to the eastern province.   The announcement last week of the first confirmed cases in South Kivu revived concerns that the highly contagious disease could cross the porous borders of the central African country, where it has claimed more than 1,900 lives since August last year.   "A seven-year-old child died yesterday (Sunday) of Ebola" in South Kivu's Mwenga region, said Claude Bahizire, communication officer of South Kivu's provincial health division.

The first death in South Kivu was a woman in her twenties who evaded movement controls to travel from the North Kivu town of Beni, the epicentre of the outbreak, to South Kivu's capital Bukavu and then Mwenga.    She died on Wednesday, and her seven-month-old son has been diagnosed with the virus and is receiving treatment.   Bahizire said that "two other suspected cases, two women, have been detected and admitted to Bukavu's transit centre".   The two women "were in contact with the woman who died last week while she was staying in Bukavu on the way to Mwenga," he added.

The outbreak of the haemorrhagic virus began in North Kivu on August 1, 2018 and spread to Ituri province.   The health ministry also announced that "a new health zone had been assigned in North Kivu".   A confirmed case of Ebola has been recorded in North Kivu's Pinga region, in Walikale territory, a source said without providing further details.   According to the latest numbers published on Sunday, 1,934 people have since died, while 862 have been cured.

The latest outbreak is the second-deadliest on record after more than 11,000 people were killed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2014-2016.   Also on Monday, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on the nine countries that share a border with DR Congo to show solidarity to stop the spread of Ebola.   "We now have an Ebola vaccine that is more than 97 percent effective and treatments that are more than 90 per cent effective if used early enough," he said in Republic of Congo capital Brazzaville.
Date: Mon, 19 Aug 2019 19:48:07 +0200 (METDST)
By Alain JEAN-ROBERT

Paris, Aug 19, 2019 (AFP) - French construction workers wearing protective masks returned to the site of stricken Notre-Dame cathedral on Monday after a three-week pause due to the risk of lead contamination.   Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud was given a tour of the scorched monumet wearing a white protective suit while workers could again be seen surveying the structure which was left damaged and weakened in a massive fire in April.

Restoration of the cathedral has yet to begin with efforts focused entirely on securing the building. The culture ministry has warned it is still at risk of collapse.   Efforts to remove lead from the area around Notre-Dame began last week after alarm grew over the presence of the toxic metal.   Hundreds of tonnes of lead in the roof and steeple melted during the April 15 blaze that nearly destroyed the gothic masterpiece, with winds spreading the particles well beyond the church grounds.

Residents have accused the Paris authorities of underplaying the risk from the lead although the culture ministry insists safety is the top priority.   But prefect Michel Cadot, the government's top official for the Paris region, approved the resumption of the works after visiting the site.   "I saw that the different recommendations of the labour inspectors had been implemented," he said, adding the decontamination work would help keep contractors safe.   Securing the structure is required before the restoration work can start.    The culture ministry said that stones had fallen from the nave vault during a heatwave in July.   "It is only the urgency linked to the persistent risk of a collapse that justifies the rhythm of work undertaken" since the fire, it said in a statement Wednesday.

President Emmanuel Macron has set an ambitious target of five years for the restoration to be finished. But the ministry said the work would not even begin until next year.   Paris prosecutors said in June that a poorly stubbed-out cigarette or an electrical fault could have started the fire and opened an investigation into criminal negligence, without targeting any individual.

French investigative news site Mediapart published a report this week accusing the ministry of repeatedly ignoring warnings by labour inspectors about the dangers posed by the lead until work was finally suspended on July 25.   Critics have accused the city of failing to notify the public about the test results, while an environmental group has filed a lawsuit alleging that officials failed to sufficiently contain the contamination.   The ministry rejected Mediapart's allegations it had failed to pay attention to the risks encountered by workers on the site.
Date: Mon, 19 Aug 2019 13:26:06 +0200 (METDST)

Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Aug 19, 2019 (AFP) - Scores of people including children were wounded Monday after a series of explosions shook the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, as the country's independence day was marred by bloodshed.

As many as 10 blasts were reported in and around the city in Nangarhar province, authorities said, and casualty numbers rose as the day wore on.   "The explosions were caused by IEDs in different parts of the city and as groups of people were celebrating independence day," the Nangarhar governor's spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said, referring to improvised explosive devices.   Jalalabad is the scene of frequent bomb attacks, and the surrounding terrain is home to both Taliban fighters and the Islamic State group's local affiliate.

At least 52 people were wounded, Khogyani said. Zaher Adel, a spokesman for a local hospital, said 66 wounded people had been brought in. An AFP correspondent saw children among the victims.   This year's August 19 celebrations mark 100 years of Afghan independence from British influence.   The day was supposed to be one of national pride and unity, but was overshadowed by an IS suicide attack Saturday on a crowded Kabul wedding hall that killed at least 63 people.

In Kabul, locals took to the streets to wave the black-red-and-green Afghan flag, but several public events to commemorate the date were scrapped as Kabul mourns and due to fears of a fresh attack.    "We postponed the celebrations to honour the victims, but we will definitely take revenge for our people," Afghan President Ahraf Ghani said.   "We will avenge the blood of our people, every drop of it."

Mayhem from Afghanistan's war continues to wreak havoc on Afghans every day, even though the US and the Taliban are in final negotiations for a deal that would see US troops begin to quit Afghanistan and could potentially lead to a reduction in violence.
Date: Wed 14 Aug 2019
Source: Universitat Hohenheim [in German, trans. Britta Lassmann, edited]

The University of Hohenheim and the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology [IMB] have detected spotted fever in a hyalomma tick, the 1st time such a tick is suspected to have caused disease in a human in Germany.

This tick feeds on humans and can transmit a form of spotted fever in Germany. What were still unanswered questions about the tropical giant tick hyalomma is now certainty. At the beginning of August [2019], it was suspected that for the 1st time, a human in Germany had contracted a disease with the typical symptoms of rickettsiosis from the bite of a hyalomma tick. Experts from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart and the IMB in Munich were able to detect the pathogen _Rickettsia aeschlimannii_ in the tick. The number of hyalomma ticks in Germany increased significantly in 2019 compared to the previous year [2018]. In nearly half of the hyalomma ticks, _R. aeschlimannii_ can be detected. The tick researchers continue to ask the population to send them suspicious ticks.

It was probably no coincidence that this 1st case was in a horse owner. Tropical ticks of the genus _Hyalomma_ feed on large mammals. For several years, these ticks have been on the rise in Germany. Now tick researchers report the 1st suspected case of spotted fever transmitted in Germany. "Not only do we now know for sure that the hyalomma tick is also targeting humans," says Prof Dr Med Ute Mackenstedt, a parasitologist at the University of Hohenheim, "but also that there is the urgent suspicion that the transmission of spotted fever by these ticks is actually possible here in Germany."

The case: At the end of July [2019], the horse owner from near Siegen was bitten by a hyalomma tick. He sent the tick to the tick researcher in Hohenheim. He then presented to the hospital only a few days later with severe symptoms. Spotted fever caused by the bacterium _R. aeschlimannii_ was suspected. The tick was sent by courier service to the IMB in Munich, where the pathogen was detected in the tick. Thereafter, the patient received targeted antibiotic therapy, and his symptoms rapidly improved.

"We are talking about a suspected case, because direct detection of the pathogen from the patient was not possible," explains PD Dr Med Gerhard Dobler, medical doctor at the IMB. "The treatment of the patient came 1st. But the preceding tick bite, the typical symptoms
and, above all, the proof of the pathogen in the tick suggest that the case was spotted fever. The fact that the patient responded to targeted antibiotic therapy further supports this."

_R. aeschlimannii_ causes a feverish infection with headache and muscle pain, extreme joint pain, and a burning sensation. Typical for the disease, however, is the rash that gave the disease its name. This classic sign shows mainly on the extremities. The incubation period is about one week.

"If spotted fever is suspected after a hyalomma bite, a swab should be taken from the bite site and sent for examination," advises PD Dobler. "If there are questions, you are welcome to contact us. Ideally, we would also like to examine the tick."

About half of the hyalomma ticks, the researchers say, are infected with rickettsia. Transmission takes place exclusively via tick bite. "The number of hyalomma ticks in Germany is significantly higher this year [2019] than in the previous year [2018]," reports Prof Dr Med Mackenstedt, referencing the publication in which the situation was presented in 2018. The Hohenheim parasitologist not only cooperates closely with the IMB in Munich, but also with the working group of Prof Dr Med Christina Strube at the Veterinary University (TiHo) Hannover. "Together they already have found 50 such ticks in Germany in 2019. Last year [2018] there were a total of 35." Last year, these ticks had survived the winter in Germany for the 1st time.

"Rickettsia are the only pathogens that we have been able to detect so far," explains PD Dr. Dobler. "We have not found the virus that causes the dangerous Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, nor the pathogens _Theileria equi_ and _Babesia caballi_, both of which can be transmitted from ticks to horses."

The research team continues to ask the population for support to further explore the spread and potential dangers. In case of a tick bite, it's best to remove the tick with a tick remover, TickCard, or tweezers. Then send the animal in a small, tightly closed container to:
University of Hohenheim
Prof. Dr. Ute Mackenstedt
Department of Parasitology
Emil-Wolff-Strasse 34
70599 Stuttgart

Background: Tick genus _Hyalomma_
_Hyalomma marginatum_ and _Hyalomma rufipes_ are native to the dry and semi-arid areas of Africa, Asia, and southern Europe. Until recently, they did not occur in central and northern Europe. Their striped legs are striking, and they are much larger than the native ixodes ticks.

The adult ticks feed on large animals. They are active hunters and move quickly towards their host. They cover a distance of up to 100 m [328 ft]. Humans can serve as hosts. In contrast, tick larvae and nymphs mainly infest birds and small mammals and can stay up to 28 days with their hosts. Migratory birds can introduce larvae and nymphs to Germany.

In Eurasia, both _Hyalomma_ species are considered transmitters of the Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever virus and the Arabic hemorrhagic fever virus (Alkhumra virus). They also transmit the bacterium _Rickettsia aeschlimannii_, which causes a form of spotted fever.

Reference:
Chitimia-Dobler L, et al. Imported _Hyalomma_ ticks in Germany in 2018. Parasites & Vectors. 2019; 12 (134).

More information:
Picture and video material [in German]
Press release: Tropical ticks in Germany: University of Hohenheim asks to send conspicuous tick finds [in German]
Press release: Tropical ticks: New immigrant species winters in Germany for the 1st time [in German]
-----------------------------------
communicated by:
Roland Hubner
Superior Health Council
Brussels
Belgium
====================
[Given that the ticks were found last year (2018) and that they overwintered and were found again this year (2019), it is likely that this genus of tick is becoming established in Germany. Although the species of _Hyalomma_ that infected the man with _Rickettsia aeschlimannii_ was not determined, there is a clear association of this rickettsia with the 2 species of _Hyalomma_ that were tested. The published report cited above states, "35 ticks with an unusual appearance or behaviour were reported to us during summer-autumn 2018. For 17 of them, the description or photos implied that they belong to the hard tick genus _Hyalomma_. The remaining 18 ticks were sent to us and were identified as adult _Hyalomma marginatum_ (10 specimens) or adult _Hyalomma rufipes_ (8 specimens). All ticks tested negative for CCHF virus, _Coxiella burnetii_, _Coxiella_-like organisms, _Babesia_ spp. and _Theileria_ spp. The screening for rickettsiae gave positive results in 9 specimens. The _Rickettsia_ species in all cases was identified as _R. aeschlimannii_." Given that these ticks can be transported by birds migrating from Africa, continued surveillance in Germany for the rickettsia and the other pathogens that were not found currently is prudent. - ProMED Mod.TY]

The first human case of _R. aeschlimannii_ infection was identified in a patient who had fever, rash, and an eschar similar to _R. conori_ infection (Mediaterrian spotted fever) after travel in Morocco (1). _R. aeschlimannii_ infections in humans have been previously confirmed in South Africa, in Algeria, and in Tunisia (2). To our knowledge, the first human case of _R. aeschlimannii_ infection reported in Europe occurred in Greece and was reported in 2013 (3).

1. Raoult D, Fournier PE, Abboud P, Caron F. First documented human Rickettsia aeschlimannii infection. Emerg Infect Dis. 2002; 8: 748-9. doi: 10.3201/eid0807.010480
2. Demoncheaux JP, Socolovschi C, Davoust B, Haddad S, Raoult D, Parola P. First detection of _Rickettsia aeschlimanii_ in _Hyalomma dromedarii_ ticks in Tunisia. Ticks Tick Borne Dis. 2012; 3: 398-402.
3. Germanakis A, Chochlakis D, Angelakis E, Tselentis Y, Psaroulaki A. _Rickettsia aeschlimannii_ infection in a man, Greece. Emerg Infect Dis. 2013; 19: 1176-7.  - ProMED Mod. LL]

[HealthMap/ProMED-mail map of Germany:
Date: Wed 19 Aug 2019, 12:48 PM
Source: Kazakh Telegraph Agency [edited]

A total of 4 anthrax cases have been confirmed in the Akmola region, reports the health care department. "Up to [now] 5 [suspected cases of] anthrax have been recorded; lab tests have confirmed 4. The cause of contamination was cow butchering without a veterinary certificate in a private yard," said the interlocutor.

"Epidemiological situation in the Akmola region and Nur-Sultan is stable," said the department. "The situation is being constantly monitored by the committee," said Ludmila Burabekova, chairfigure of the committee of quality control and goods safety. "Anti-epidemic and anti-epizootic arrangements have been organized in the area," she added.
*****************************
Date: Wed 19 Aug 2019, 12:04 PM GMT
Source: Radio Free Europe [edited]

A village near the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, is under quarantine after lab tests confirmed anthrax infections in several people.

The Health Ministry said on [19 Aug 2019] that 5 residents of the village of Olginka, 100 km [about 62 mi] east of Nur-Sultan, have been hospitalized in recent days with anthrax symptoms, 4 of whom tested positive for _Bacillus anthracis_ -- the bacterium that causes the infectious disease. According to the statement, the situation in the village in the Aqmola region is under the control of the authorities and all necessary measures are being taken to prevent the possible spread of the disease.

In 2016, in nearby Qaraghandy Oblast, 2 people died as a result of anthrax infections.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), domestic and wild animals -- such as cattle, sheep, goats, antelope, and deer -- can become infected by inhaling or ingesting spores in contaminated soil, plants, or water. CDC says all types of anthrax infections can cause death if they are not treated with antibiotics.
========================
[Olginka is in north-central Kazajhstan; see:

There is a measure of rural poverty in northern half of Kazakhstan, with the result that sick and moribund animals get butchered and eaten. Fortunately, as this village is within 100 Km [about 62 mi] of the Kazakh capital the affected have had the advantage of hospital care and proper laboratory confirmation. The coincident 5th person may have just shown a fever when the medical authorities were looking for clinical cases or it may be a false negative.

Folk have a habit of self-treating with antibiotics and this would have reduced the number of circulating vegetative cells available to testing. My friend Benyamin Cherkasskyi, the Soviet anthrax expert, used to tell me that only some 30%-40% of cutaneous cases would test positive. You have to know to insert your needle in under the lesion to draw out the fluid there which will contain cells, blood, and toxins. - ProMED Mod.MHJ]

[HealthMap/ProMED map available at:
Date: Mon, 19 Aug 2019 03:45:54 +0200 (METDST)

Lomo del Pino, Spain, Aug 19, 2019 (AFP) - A raging wildfire on the Spanish holiday island of Gran Canaria forced the evacuation of some 5,000 people, authorities said Sunday, warning it could take days for the blaze to be brought under control.   The fire, which has spread to the mountainous Cruz de Tejeda region popular with tourists for its breathtaking views, is "extremely fierce" and "unstable", said Canary Islands president Angel Victor Torres in a statement.   No fatalities have been reported.

More than 600 firefighters and 14 aircraft battled to contain the flames, hampered by strong winds and high temperatures.   With the temperature set to rise Monday, authorities estimate it could take days before the blaze is brought under control.   "The next few hours will be very important because the weather forecast for the night is not good," Torres said.   The fire broke out days after another wildfire in the same region forced the evacuation of hundreds.

Gran Canaria is the second most populous of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic off the northwest coast of Africa.   The Canary Islands received 13.7 million foreign visitors last year, over half of them from Britain and Germany.   Spain is frequently plagued by huge forest fires because of its arid summer climate.
Date: Sun, 18 Aug 2019 23:01:00 +0200 (METDST)

Lisbon, Aug 18, 2019 (AFP) - Portuguese fuel tanker drivers whose strike has caused fuel shortages at the summer holiday season on Sunday ended their industrial action.   Drivers have been staging a strike since Monday to demand further wage increases in 2021 and 2022, prompting the government to declare an energy crisis.   "Since all the conditions are now in place to negotiate, we decided to end the strike," Pedro Pardal Henriques, spokesman for the National Union of Dangerous Goods Carriers (SNMMP), told reporters.

A meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, the union President Francisco Sao Bento said, adding that the union did not "rule out new strikes being called if Antram (the employers association) adopts an uncompromising attitude".   Police had launched an operation to escort fuel tankers with extra supplies and Portugal also mobilised about 500 members of the security forces to replace the strikers and drive the trucks.   Despite the shortages, Energy Minister Joao Pedro Matos Fernandes said about two-thirds of the country's 3,000 or so petrol stations had not run dry.
Date: Sun, 18 Aug 2019 11:47:26 +0200 (METDST)
By By Emal Haidary and Mushtaq Mojaddidi

Kabul, Aug 18, 2019 (AFP) - Joy and celebration turned into horror and carnage when a suicide bomber targeted a packed Afghan wedding hall, killing at least 63 people in the deadliest attack to rock Kabul in months, officials and witnesses said Sunday.   The massive blast, which took place late Saturday in west Kabul, came as Washington and the Taliban finalise a deal to reduce the US military presence in Afghanistan and hopefully build a roadmap to a ceasefire.   The groom recalled greeting smiling guests in the afternoon, before seeing their bodies being carried out hours later.

The attack "changed my happiness to sorrow", the young man, who gave his name as Mirwais, told local TV station Tolo News.   "My family, my bride are in shock, they cannot even speak. My bride keeps fainting," he said.   "I lost my brother, I lost my friends, I lost my relatives. I will never see happiness in my life again."   Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said at least 63 people had been killed and 182 injured.   "Among the wounded are women and children," Rahimi said. Earlier he stated a suicide bomber carried out the attack.

Afghan weddings are epic and vibrant affairs, with hundreds or often thousands of guests celebrating for hours inside industrial-scale wedding halls where the men are usually segregated from the women and children.   "The wedding guests were dancing and celebrating the party when the blast happened," recounted Munir Ahmad, 23, who was seriously injured and whose cousin was among the dead.   "Following the explosion, there was total chaos. Everyone was screaming and crying for their loved ones," he told AFP from his bed in a local hospital, where he is being treated for shrapnel wounds.

Images from inside the hall showed blood-stained bodies on the ground along with pieces of flesh and torn clothes, hats, sandals and bottles of mineral water. The huge blast ripped parts of the ceiling off.   The wedding was believed to be a Shia gathering. Shia Muslims are frequently targeted in Sunni-majority Afghanistan, particularly by the so-called Islamic State group, which is also active in Kabul but did not immediately issue any claim of responsibility.

Wedding guest Hameed Quresh told AFP the young couple were saying their vows when the bomb went off.    "We fainted following the blast, and we don't know who brought us to the hospital," sobbed Quresh, who lost one brother and was himself wounded.   Another guest told Tolo that some 1,200 people had been invited. With low security, weddings are seen as easy targets.   The attack sent a wave of grief through a city grimly accustomed to atrocities. President Ashraf Ghani called it "barbaric", while Afghanistan's chief executive Abdullah Abdullah described it as a "crime against humanity".

- Withdrawal deal expected -
The attack underscores both the inadequacy of Afghanistan's security forces and the scale of the problem they face. While the police and army claim they prevent most bombings from ever happening, the fact remains that insurgents pull off horrific attacks with chilling regularity.   On July 28, at least 20 people were killed when attackers targeted Ghani's running mate Amrullah Saleh as he campaigned in presidential elections.    The incident showed how even amid tight security and known threats, insurgents can conduct brazen attacks.   The issue also goes to the heart of a prospective deal between the US and the Taliban that would see Washington begin to withdraw its approximately 14,000 soldiers from Afghanistan.

The deal relies on the Taliban providing guarantees they will stop jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS from using Afghanistan as a safe haven. Saturday's attack suggests any such promise would be tough to keep.   The "Taliban cannot absolve themselves of blame, for they provide platform for terrorists," Ghani said.   Few believe such a deal will bring quick peace.

Many Afghans fear the Taliban could return, eroding hard-won rights for women in particular and leading to a spiralling civil war.   Meanwhile, in the northern province of Balkh, 11 members of the same family were killed when their car hit a roadside bomb, officials said. The provincial governor blamed the Taliban for planting the device.
Date: Sun, 18 Aug 2019 05:28:47 +0200 (METDST)
By Amélie BOTTOLLIER-DEPOIS

Paris, Aug 18, 2019 (AFP) - Seafood lovers who prize the mussel for its earthy taste and succulent flesh may be unaware of its growing potential in the fight against water pollution.   The mussel is the hoover of the sea, taking in phytoplankton for nourishment along with microplastics, pesticides and other pollutants -- which makes it an excellent gauge.

One day, it may also be pressed into service to cleanse water.   "It's a super-filter in the marine world, filtering up to 25 litres of water a day," says marine biologist Leila Meistertzheim.   "It's a real model of bioaccumulation of pollutants generally speaking."   As they pump and filter the water through their gills in order to feed and breathe, mussels store almost everything else that passes through -- which is why strict health rules apply for those destined for human consumption.

Like canaries in a coal mine, mussels have long been used as "bio-indicators" of the health of the seas, lakes and rivers they inhabit.   Little-known pollutants can turn up to join the usual suspects, with increasing attention paid to microplastics containing bisphenol A and phthalates, both thought to be endocrine disruptors.

Meistertzheim heads a study for France's Tara Ocean Foundation using mussels to gauge the health of the estuaries of the Thames, Elba and Seine rivers.   The mussels, placed in fish traps, are submerged in the waters for a month before researchers dissect them to determine what chemical substances lurk in their tissues.   The idea of deploying mussels across the oceans to absorb ubiquitous microplastics is just a dream for now, but for other pollutants, the bivalves are already at work.   "In some places, mussels are used, as well as oysters, to cleanse the sea of pesticides, for example," Meistertzheim notes.

- E. coli busters -
Richard Luthy, an environmental engineer from California's Stanford University, says that, in most cases, mussels harvested from contaminated waters should not be eaten.   But if the contaminant is E. coli, mussels can be thanked for the "removal and inactivation" of the faecal material, he says, calling the service a "public health benefit".   The mussels are edible because they "excrete the bacteria as faeces or mucus," he says.   Mussels living in waterways affected by eutrophication -- often marked by abundant algae -- are also fit for human consumption, researchers say.   The phenomenon is often the result of waste dumped into the waterway containing phosphates and nitrites, such as detergents, fertilisers and sewage.   The nutrients in these substances encourage the proliferation of algae, which in turn starves the water of oxygen, upsetting the ecosystem.

Mussels "recycle" these nutrients by feeding on the algae, says Eve Galimany, a researcher of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Milford Laboratory who has experimented with mussels in the Bronx River in New York.   The recycling principle is already at work in a pilot project titled Baltic Blue Growth in Sweden, Denmark and the Baltic countries which grows mussels to be fed to animals such as poultry, fish and pigs.   "Eutrophication... is the biggest problem of the Baltic Sea, the most urgent one," says project head Lena Tasse. Mussels "could be part of a solution".   Why feed them to animals if they are safe for humans? Because Baltic mussels are too small to be of interest to seafood lovers, says Tasse, adding: "Swedes like big mussels."

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the effects of microplastics on human health.   A recent report by WWF said that humans ingest an average of five grammes of microplastics a week -- about the weight of a credit card.   A 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Pollution, based on samples from British coastlines and supermarkets, estimated that every 100 grammes (3.5 ounces) of mussels contained 70 tiny pieces of plastic.   Should we be worried? Meistertzheim thinks not.   "I eat them," she says. "A dish of mussels is not necessarily worse than organic hamburger meat wrapped in plastic."