A team of World Health Organization (WHO) experts has finally received permission from the Turkmenistan government to conduct independent COVID-19 testing in the Central Asian country, WHO’s Regional Office for Europe has revealed.
The global coronavirus pandemic and response measures required to tackle acute infectious diseases in Turkmenistan came into the spotlight on August 7, during an online meeting of top WHO officials and Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
“Today Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] and I met the Turkmenistan President to discuss the COVID-19 situation in Turkmenistan,” Hans Kluge, Director at the WHO Regional Office for Europe wrote on his Facebook page.
“WHO expressed serious concern about the rise in COVID-19 negative pneumonia and urged for a WHO team to independently sample COVID-19 tests in the country and take them to WHO reference labs. The president agreed,” he added.
Turkmenistan, which is considered Central Asia’s third-largest economy behind Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has a population of slightly more than 6 million people.
Government officials in Ashgabat insist the country does not have COVID-19 cases despite an ongoing outbreak in infectious respiratory illnesses with symptoms similar to the novel coronavirus disease. At the same time, the country’s authorities have implemented a series of preventative measures to contain the disease, including shutting down trade centers, markets, large shops and mosques, as well as public transport. Turkmenistan citizens are now required to wear masks everywhere, whereas wearing one before could result in a fine.
Meanwhile, President Berdimuhamedow did not rule out further spread of the deadly virus in Turkmenistan.
“There is no consensus about the true origin of diseases caused by a new virus. An example of this is pneumonia of unknown etiology, which is rapidly spreading in our region. There is a point of view that this disease is a product of a new coronavirus,” the state-run Turkmenistan Today cited the president as saying.
On July 7, a team of five WHO health experts and epidemiologists traveled to Ashgabat at the request of the Turkmen government for a 10-day visit. WHO experts worked closely with local health authorities to assess the risks and develop response measures to tackle the novel coronavirus. While they neither confirmed nor denied the presence of the novel coronavirus in the country, they recommended that the government act “as if COVID-19 was already spreading.”
“We are aware of and concerned about reports of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia,” said Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, who also led the Turkmenistan mission.
According to government data, 60,000 coronavirus tests have, so far, been conducted in the country.
“The actions taken in Turkmenistan will have an impact on the people in the country, but also those living throughout Central Asia, Europe and the world,” Smallwood said.
Earlier this month, the US Department of State issued a travel advisory for Turkmenistan, urging against travel to the Central Asian country due to COVID-19. According to the document, travelers to Turkmenistan may experience border, airport and business closures, travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and other emergency measures in the country.