Turkish Boy Had Bird Flu, Tests Find

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 5, 2006

ISTANBUL, Jan. 4 -- A 14-year-old boy who died Sunday in a rural part of Turkey tested positive for bird flu, Turkish health officials said Wednesday. It was the first human fatality caused by the virus outside East Asia.

The health minister, Recep Akdag, said Muhammet Ali Kocyigit apparently contracted the virus from ailing chickens at his family's home in the shadow of Mount Ararat, near the Armenian border. Lung tissue from the boy tested positive for the H5N1 virus at two Turkish labs and was being sent to a World Health Organization laboratory in London for more tests.

The boy was one of a dozen people with similar symptoms admitted to the hospital in recent days.

The announcement caused alarm in Turkey, where sales of poultry products have plummeted since the disease emerged in domestic flocks in October. But authorities said there still was no indication that the virus was being transmitted from human to human, a pivotal development that public health officials say would probably lead to a global pandemic endangering the lives of millions of people.

"We haven't seen any indication of passage from human to human," Akdag said at a news conference in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

The announcement followed earlier assurances that the boy had died of pneumonia. Turkish officials did not account for the mistake, but at the hastily called late-night news conference, they urged people to take precautions, including washing thoroughly after handling poultry.

Two of Muhammet's siblings were admitted to Yuzuncuyil University hospital in the eastern city of Van with similar symptoms, including stubborn fevers and bleeding throats. Both were on respirators. One of the children, a girl identified as Fatma, also tested positive for the virus, Akdag said. Tests were inconclusive on the other sibling, who was not identified.

Nine other patients were also being treated at the hospital, medical officials told Turkish news media. Most of the patients had arrived from villages in eastern Turkey in an area where officials began culling flocks this week after an avian flu outbreak.

Researchers believe that the virus is carried by migrating birds. Outbreaks have also been reported among domestic flocks in Russia, Romania and Croatia.

"This really doesn't change the overall complexion of the pandemic influenza risk," Michael T. Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, said of the boy's death. "We could have expected that as the virus moves out of Southeast Asia into poultry throughout the world that there could be isolated cases of H5N1 among those with contact with the birds."

Osterholm said that while the death in Turkey may lead to awareness, if not alarm, of bird flu in the West, scientists continue to focus intently on East Asia, where 74 deaths have been linked to the disease since it emerged in December 2003. Studies show that the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people emerged when an avian flu virus mutated into a form that was passed from human to human.

"The genetic roulette table for this virus is still Asia, because there are so many billions of birds there being replaced daily as birds are killed for consumption," he said.

Correspondent Alan Sipress in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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