Two Turkish Victims Had Lethal Strain Of Bird Flu

Associated Press
Sunday, January 8, 2006

GENEVA, Jan. 7 -- Two teenage siblings who died of bird flu in Turkey last week were infected with the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus, the first time the strain has killed humans outside East Asia, the U.N. health agency said Saturday.

The World Health Organization said it was sending specialists to Turkey to investigate whether the victims were infected by animals or by other humans.

WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said the agency's laboratory in Britain reported the results Saturday on the tests from a 15-year-old girl and her 14-year-old brother, who died earlier in the week. They have yet to complete testing on the samples from their 11-year-old sister, who died Friday. A fourth sibling, a 6-year-old boy, was hospitalized.

Cheng said the spread of the disease from East Asia, where it has killed more than 70 people, was "a concern" but the global risk assessment of a pandemic was unchanged.

"Right now these new cases in Turkey, they don't elevate the global risk assessment, so we're still in the same pandemic alert phase that we've been in for the last couple of years," Cheng said. "But it's something that needs to be monitored very closely."

So far, H5N1 has been capable in rare cases of being transmitted from poultry to humans in close contact with the birds, but not from human to human. Experts fear that if the virus mutates into such a strain, it could set off a human flu pandemic.

"It's always a concern when we have H5N1 cases, particularly in a region that hasn't previously reported human cases," Cheng said. "That shows us that the virus is still a threat to public health and clearly that it has a capacity to move and to infect humans.

"But at the moment we don't know enough about the situation to tell whether or not the virus has changed in some way. And that's largely the reason the team has gone in," Cheng said.

The team of five WHO experts arrived in Turkey last week and was supposed to travel Saturday to the city of Van, not far from the village where the three children died. But bad weather delayed the group's departure until Sunday, Cheng said.

The victims' physician said the three children probably contracted the illness by playing with dead chickens.

"We'd like to see all these cases investigated rapidly so that we can determine what the mode of transmission was, what the source of exposure was, and whether or not there were any characteristics of the situation that are different from what we've seen in Asia," Cheng said.

Turkey's number of suspected bird flu cases -- people with flu-like symptoms who had recently been in contact with fowl -- reached at least 32 Saturday. At least 20 people were hospitalized in Van. Five people were hospitalized in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, and seven relatives were admitted to an Istanbul hospital.

Health Minister Recep Akdag said none of the cases outside of Van appeared to be "probable" or "strongly probable" bird flu cases.

In a village on the outskirts of the home town of the children who succumbed to bird flu, residents gathered outside an Agriculture Ministry building to complain that no one had come to cull their fowl.

"We have sick chickens, we can't touch them," village administrator Hasan Celik said. "No one is coming."

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