Covid-19 is a global challenge, a threat to the entire mankind. In a logical world, this should have catalyzed and cemented the unity among the people and the nations.
Nevertheless, we are living in an illogical world.
For example, some media outlets are questioning: Why are there no reported cases of Covid-19 in Turkmenistan?
These are the same media outlets and the same people who are always portraying Central Asia as a region on the brink; always on the brink; just a millimeter from the abyss.
As to why no cases of Covid-19 have been found in Turkmenistan, one doesn’t need to look far. The answer is in plain sight, within the country.
Among many, there are four reasons that present themselves immediately.
The first is that the country acted swiftly and closed its doors against the virus. This strain of coronavirus can float in the air for a few hours but it is mainly transmitted by contact or vicinity. Turkmenistan smothered this likelihood by imposing screening and quarantine regime at all the entry/exit points.
Soon after, when it became clear that Covid-19 is a pandemic of yet-unknown scale, the arrival of international flights was restricted to just one airport – Turkmenabat. It was an expensive but justifiable decision. The crew and the passengers went through screening for virus; those who were suspected of infection were sent into quarantine and the rest boarded the plane for flight to Ashgabat.
Safe? Also yes.
When coronavirus started ravaging country after country, Turkmenistan closed all of its land, air, and sea borders.
Some of these measures seemed rather harsh when they were imposed. However, the hindsight is the justification by itself – mainly the knowledge that most of the carriers of this coronavirus show no symptoms.
The second reason is the BCG vaccine.
Turkmenistan is one of the few, perhaps 22, countries where BCG vaccine is still administered. It is given to the newborn babies (2-3 days old) and then again when they reach the age of 14.
In response to a question from nCa, the WHO Turkmenistan provided the following link:
The link leads to a page that provides the vaccination status in Turkmenistan in a tabulated, interactive format.
According to the information on the page, almost 100% of babies born in Turkmenistan are given the BCG vaccine.
Since the vaccine was introduced during the Soviet times, the overwhelming portion of the population of Turkmenistan has received this vaccine.
What is the connection between BCG vaccine and Covid-19?
A composite report by EuroNews, combining the material from AP and AFP sheds some light.
It starts by posing the question: Why has Spain had almost 11,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic while Portugal’s death toll barely exceeds 200?
After posing the question, the report starts answering it:
“Such a disparity in numbers within the Iberian peninsula is mysterious, but it could in part be explained by the two countries’ different use of a vaccine. Not a vaccine against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus – no such vaccine exists yet, rather it is the decades-old tuberculosis vaccine that seems to offer an explanation.
“A new scientific study has discovered a possible correlation between countries where it is mandatory to be vaccinated against tuberculosis, also called “Bacillus Calmette-Guerin” (BCG), and the impact of the new coronavirus.”
The report quotes one of the authors of the study: “We found that countries without universal policies of BCG vaccination (Italy, Netherlands, USA) have been more severely affected compared to countries with universal and long-standing BCG policies.”
“There have been reports that the BCG vaccine can produce broad protection against respiratory infections,” Gonzalo Otazu, a researcher at the New York Institute of Technology and one of the study’s authors, explained on Twitter.
“We looked at the data: countries that never implemented a universal BCG vaccine were being hit hard by COVID-19, with a high number of deaths per capita.”
The report elaborates further:
“Italy, the country with the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 with 13,915, has never universally applied tuberculosis vaccination.
“Japan, which has reported only 63 deaths from coronavirus and has taken less stringent containment measures, has a universal tuberculosis vaccination policy.
“The researchers also compared Iran to Japan, two countries that have applied universal BCG vaccination, but at different times.
“Japan started its universal BCG vaccination policy in 1947 while the Iranian policy was put in place in 1984. Japan has about 100 fewer deaths per million inhabitants than Iran, they found.”
A research paper authored jointly by Devi Dayal and Saniya Gupta argues:
“Two recent studies have suggested a link between the BCG vaccination policy and the morbidity and mortality due to COVID-19. In the present study we compared the impact of COVID-19 in terms of case fatality rates (CFR) between countries with high disease burden and those with BCG revaccination policies presuming that revaccination practices would have provided added protection to the population against severe COVID-19. We found a significant difference in the CFR between the two groups of countries. Our data further supports the view that universal BCG vaccination has a protective effect on the course of COVID-19 probably preventing progression to severe disease and death.”
Sruthijith, KK, the editor of The Economic Times writes:
“Countries that do not have a BCG vaccination policy saw ten times greater incidence of and mortality from Covid-19, compared with those who do, a forthcoming study from medical researchers in the US and UK, which analysed data from 178 countries, has found.”
The study looked at Covid-19 instances and mortality for 15 days between 9 and 24 March in 178 countries and concluded that “incidence of Covid-19 was 38.4 per million in countries with BCG vaccination compared to 358.4 per million in the absence of such a program. The death rate was 4.28/million in countries with BCG programs compared to 40/million in countries without such a program.”
The scholar Sruthijith is quoting is Dr. Ashish Kamat, co-author of the paper and professor of Urologic Oncology (Surgery) and cancer research at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
Kevin O’Sullivan, the Environment & Science Editor of the Irish Times writes:
“More “striking” evidence has emerged that the BCG vaccine given to counter TB may provide protection against Covid-19 and significantly reduce death rates in countries with high levels of vaccination.
“A study of 178 countries by an Irish medical consultant working with epidemiologists at the University of Texas in Houston shows countries with vaccination programmes – including Ireland – have far fewer coronavirus cases by a factor 10, compared to where BCG programmes are no longer deployed.
“This translates into a death rate up to 20-times less, according to urologist Paul Hegarty of the Mater Hospital, Dublin.”
Irish Times, 6 April 2020
The third reason is the ancient and strict habit of washing hands before entering the house. In every village, every small town, every suburb of Turkmenistan there is a water tap or a vessel near the door of the house. Everyone, family or guest, must wash their hands before they go inside.
We don’t know the reasons for the start of this practice. We don’t even know as to when it became a widespread habit across the Turkmen society. Perhaps the ancestors who started it may have felt some connection between the cleanliness of hands and the prevention of some illnesses. Perhaps, it was a sign of trust that some kind of food will be served. Perhaps it has something to do with the spiritual tenet – Cleanliness is Half of Faith. We don’t know.
What we know is that washing of hands is today the best protection against coronavirus, and it is a habit no one needs to teach the Turkmen people. It is in their blood.
The fourth reason is that in a Turkmen household the shoes must be taken off before entering the home or just inside the threshold. It is taboo to go inside a Turkmen home with your shoes on.
There are usually two rugs outside the door, a wet and a dry rug. You rub your shoes against the wet rug and then again on the dry rug, thereby removing any debris and clinging infectious material.
Clean hands, no shoes; that is how you reach the living room.
Apart from these, there are several other factors that contribute to the overall safety regime.
Every Turkmen family tries to maintain two residences, one in the city or town and one in some rural area. The rural residence can be anything, a room with a small courtyard, a lean-to, a semi permanent yurt, whatever they can afford. Some of them have dachas. If there is no alternative residence, there are plenty of relatives. One can visit them ever so often. This moving between two residences, between the urban and rural areas, helps build the natural immunity.
The Karakum desert and the heart of a Turkmen are connected by some invisible cord. In every household there is a kettle that has turned pitch black because it is put into the bonfire made from dried black saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron) twigs so often when they go out to the desert just to be close to the mother earth and have some tea.
There is a belief that only the fallen twigs of saxaul should be collected for burning or any other purpose. One should not chop a live saxaul.
The aroma and light smoke of the burning saxaul twigs has a refreshing effect.
The roots of saxaul host the parasitic plant cistanche, which traditional Asian herbalists use to produce a salty-tasting medicinal component that they use in treating ailments as diverse as infertility, age-related lethargy, blurred vision, memory loss, baldness, balance disorders and heart palpitations. It is called ‘ginseng of the desert.’
And, of course, the natural green dye for the wool yarn used by the Turkmen carpet weavers comes from the wood of saxaul.
Being close to the nature at every opportunity is a strong safeguard against any threats to the health and well being.
When we say Turkmen people, we don’t mean the ethnic Turkmens only. Everyone living in Turkmenistan is part of the Turkmen nation.
Hopefully, this answers the question to some extent that why are there no reported cased of Covid-19 in Turkmenistan.
This is the time to unite and act responsibly. There should be some clear difference between professional journalism and reckless social media. /// 10 April 2020