The bird flu detected among poultry in rural Turkey this month is the H5N1 strain that in some cases has infected and killed humans in East Asia, European Union health officials said Thursday.
The announcement confirmed fears that the deadly virus was traveling west with migrating wildfowl and had reached the doorstep of Europe. E.U. officials immediately proposed a $1.2 billion special fund to help member governments stockpile antiviral medicines against the possibility of an epidemic.
"The virus found in Turkey is avian flu H5N1 high pathogenic virus," E.U. health commissioner Markos Kyprianou said at a news conference in Brussels.
Kyprianou said tests were continuing on ducks that began dying of bird flu in eastern Romania about the same time 1,800 turkeys perished on a farm in northwest Turkey just south of the Marmara Sea, which separates Europe from Asia.
The infection sites are roughly in line with a migratory route running from Russia toward Africa. The infected turkeys ranged on land near Bird Paradise National Park, where migrating birds often stop over.
Health experts fear that the avian H5N1 virus might develop into a strain that passes easily from human to human, the genesis of the 1918 epidemic that killed tens of millions of people worldwide, as new research has shown. The current strain has killed 60 people of the 117 known to have been infected since it emerged in Asia two years ago.
Samples of the viruses from Turkey and Romania will be compared with human H5N1 samples from Asia, according to the World Health Organization. The U.N. agency noted that it continues to regard bird flu as warranting a "Stage 3" pandemic alert, applied for viruses that are new to humans and causing infections but not spread easily between them.
No humans are known to be infected in Turkey. Officials said a handful of people who worked with the affected animals were being given precautionary doses of antiviral medication, but had no symptoms. Authorities have killed more than 7,600 domestic birds as a precaution and established a loose quarantine in the area of the outbreak, which occurred in the Kiziksa hamlet in the town of Manyas, about 95 miles southwest of Istanbul, Turkey's commercial capital.
"We are also on alert in other parts of Turkey," said Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker. "We are evaluating very carefully every little suspicion and taking required measures. We are working meticulously. The situation is under control."
Among Turkey's precautions was a sudden order from the Swiss drug company Roche for half a million boxes of oseltamivir, the antiviral medication known by the commercial name Tamiflu. "A letter of intent . . . has been sent so that a fixed amount of the antiviral drug is kept in Turkey," the semiofficial Anatolia news agency quoted Tiram Buzgan, a Health Ministry official, as saying.
Kyprianou, the E.U. health chief, said it was important that all member states make it a priority to address bird flu "and that they make an investment for preparing for this event." Turkish officials said they carried out an exercise a month ago anticipating a bird flu outbreak.
Many Turks reacted Thursday as though the danger were imminent. After the E.U. banned imports of poultry and feathers from Turkey earlier in the week, sales of chicken plummeted across the country, despite assurances from experts that the virus could not survive thorough cooking.
"Sales dropped like 99 percent," said Ramazan Yildiz, manager of a Bim supermarket in the middle-class Istinye section of Istanbul. "We sold only one package of chicken all day. Normally we sell about 80 kilograms," about 175 pounds.
Official reassurances might have been undercut by the appearance of Eker, the agriculture minister, on a newscast Wednesday night. Offered a roasted drumstick to eat on camera, the minister declined, saying he did not know whether it had been prepared properly. The scene was replayed on other channels Thursday.
"The fear is inside us now," said Ihsan Fil, 47, who runs a small transport business.
"The TV is screaming about it, and we know it's dangerous, so we're not eating any," said Emine Azakli, hurrying home for the evening meal that breaks the daylight fast that many Muslims observe during the holy month of Ramadan.
In Britain, the government's chief veterinarian said the appearance of the disease in Turkey indicated a possible threat to her country. "We will now carry out an assessment immediately to determine what the risk is and whether any further measures need to be taken," Debby Reynolds, of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said at a news conference.