Poor health controls and cash shortages have led to brucellosis-infected meat being offered for sale across the republic. A serious disease is sweeping through Kyrgyzstan because the cash-strapped authorities have failed to inspect and inoculate the vast majority of farm animals in the republic.
The number of people infected with brucellosis has increased by more than 28% over the past five years - higher than any other CIS country - and analysts warn that the situation is only going to get worse.
In 2002, there were 1,771 confirmed cases of the disease, which causes fever, headaches, weakness, weight loss and general pain, according to the Kyrgyz health ministry.
"People usually catch brucellosis when looking after diseased cattle, and also when consuming milk and meat from infected animals," said Alla Sarkina, deputy head physician at Bishkek's clinical infectious diseases hospital.
Since a significant part of the population breeds cattle - and meat is a staple food - there are concerns that the disease may spread out of control.
Before the break-up of the USSR, meat and dairy products were exported to most of the Soviet republics, and strict controls were in place to ensure the animals were healthy and vaccinated against any illnesses.
This has not been the case since Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991. In some regions of the country, the animals have not been vaccinated for more than two years.
Kalyspek Jumakanov, an official at the agriculture ministry's state veterinary service, told IWPR that vaccination is mostly carried out by private vets who charge up to 60 soms (1.3 US dollars) for one dose. "This is a lot of money for poor farmers - and many simply cannot afford to inoculate their cattle," he said.
The government, meanwhile, simply doesn't have the resources to carry out mass immunization programs or the cattle inspections that should take place twice a year.
Elmira Ayilchieva, who lives in Nijniy Noruz in the Issyk-Ata region, told IWPR that villagers had given up all hope of government assistance, saying, "The state veterinary service does not vaccinate cattle in our region at all. We have to call the vets ourselves and pay them out of our own pockets."
While a new preventative program has been devised by the ministry of health, it is yet to be approved by the finance ministry and there is no indication of when a decision will be taken. In the meantime, the brucellosis crisis is deepening.
Ainura Omurkanova, who also lives in Nijniy Noruz, has always helped her farmer husband to milk his cattle. "Last year my joints started to ache and the temperature to rise, but the local doctors could not discover what was wrong with me," she said.
"I had to travel to Bishkek to visit the infectious diseases center, where I was diagnosed as suffering from brucellosis. I spent three months in hospital, but I was lucky - the illness was caught at an early stage.
"It could have been avoided easily, but as brucellosis tests have not been carried out for a very long time, we did not realize that our animals were sick until it was too late."
Livestock in the Naryn region, which is the main supplier of meat for north Kyrgyzstan, have a particularly high level of brucellosis and, as a result, nearly 90 out of every thousand people have been infected, according to Zuridin Nurmatov, chairman of the health ministry's epidemiological control department.
The situation has been exacerbated by a lack of health controls within the industry, meaning that meat from diseased animals often goes straight into the markets - and onto dinner plates - without the necessary safeguards.
There are allegations that some veterinary service workers take bribes in exchange for certificates confirming that meat is disease-free and of high quality. "A lot of infected meat has slipped through the net and may have spread disease," Kurman Mambetov, deputy chairman of Bishkek City veterinary-sanitary administration, told IWPR.
His employees do their best to prevent such cases, he said, and anyone caught issuing a fake certificate or failing to inspect meat properly is fined.
Nurmatov believes that aid from international organizations is the only way forward in tackling the brucellosis crisis. "The Red Cross is already helping us with educational work in the Naryn region," he told IWPR.
"We also have high hopes for a project that we have submitted to the French organization Akted. If they approve it, we will be able to solve our numerous financial problems."
By Svetlana Nikonova and Gulnura Toralieva, IWPR’s RCA No. 192, March 21, 2003