Turkey Braces for Long Battle On Bird Flu

As the number of Turkey's bird flu cases continues to rise, authorities have begun killing thousands of birds to prevent the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus.
As the number of Turkey's bird flu cases continues to rise, authorities have begun killing thousands of birds to prevent the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus. (By Pier Paolo Cito -- Associated Press)

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By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 13, 2006

ISTANBUL, Jan. 12 -- Turkey on Thursday began adjusting to the prospect of being a long-term locale for bird flu outbreaks, as physicians confirmed a third death from the disease along with its presence in two more living people, bringing the national total to 18 cases within two weeks.

The latest fatality, Hulya Kocyigit, 11, was the sister of two youths who died last week in far eastern Turkey. The linkage of her death to the H5N1 virus was confirmed Thursday. Surviving victims are either in hospitals or have been released after treatment with antibiotics.

International health officials say Turkey is now a locale for endemic bird flu. The reach of the disease alarms health workers, who fear that at some point bird flu will be passed from human to human and not be limited to isolated cases of people contracting it after contact with infected birds.

"As the new cases of human infection with the H5N1 virus in Turkey show, the situation is worsening with each passing month and the threat of an influenza pandemic is continuing to grow every day," Shigeru Omi, western Pacific director for the World Health Organization, said at a meeting in Tokyo on early response to a possible pandemic.

In Indonesia, health officials confirmed the country's 12th bird flu fatality since 2004. The official death toll stands at 80 worldwide.

Meanwhile, the public health announcements and the painstaking slaughter of poultry that might carry the disease are becoming routine.

"We take the battle very seriously. It's ongoing," said Hehdi Eker, Turkey's health minister. He said most of the infected birds in the country had been found in people's back yards. Eker said children were most at risk because they play with the birds. "We call on parents to play a bigger role," he said.

So far, there are no plans for a mass vaccination of domestic birds or proposals to kill them all. Though Turkish health officials have culled more than 300,000 birds in numerous rural districts across the country, they have not taken the kind of measures that, for instance, South Korea did in 2003, when its government ordered the killing of more than 2 million chickens.

Not everyone who catches the disease dies, and some do not even exhibit symptoms. The cases of two Turkish boys in whom the virus was diagnosed, but who did not fall ill, are similar to others previously identified in Asia, including at least three in northern Vietnam last year. International health experts note that a similar case occurred in 1997 during a short-lived outbreak of the H5N1 virus in Hong Kong.

The experts said they would be worried if the Turkish cases signaled that healthy people were increasingly carrying the illness. That would mean the virus was adapting so that it could live longer in humans and thus spread further.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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