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Turkey: Bird Flu Claims First Lives Outside Southeast Asia

A Turkish official sprays ducks in Dogubeyazit, the hometown of Turkey's first human victims of bird flu (5 January 2006) (epa) The Turkish authorities move to stem the spread of bird flu after the country becomes the first outside Southeast Asia and China to be fatally struck by the disease.

PRAGUE, 5 January 2006 (RFE/RL) – Turkish authorities on 5 January banned the hunting of wild birds and the sale and movement of poultry in the east of the country after a 15-year-old girl became the country's second victim of bird flu -- and the only the second to die of the disease outside Southeast Asia and China.

The girl, Fatma Kocyigit, died early on 5 January in a hospital in the eastern city of Van, four days after her 14-year-old brother Mehmet Ali Kocyigit became the disease's first human victim in Turkey.

"The ban will be in place until the end of the problem," Turkish Environment Minister Osman Pepe announced on 4 January, who added that "we should neither overestimate nor underestimate the events."

In addition, on 4 January the governor of Van, Niyazi Tanilir, banned "all movement of poultry including their transfer to markets and residential areas."

The Kocyigit siblings lived in Dogubayazit, a remote town near Turkey's borders with Iran and Armenia.

Turkish authorities originally said that Mehmet Ali, who died on 1 January, had succumbed to pneumonia.

However, the cause was subsequently confirmed as the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.

Fatma's doctor said she had been in a critical condition since 4 January.

Both Mehmet Ali and his sister had suffered from stubborn fevers and bleeding throats and had been put on respirators.

Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag said members of the family had eaten diseased chickens.

Two other members of the Kocyigit family are among seven other people currently being treated in Van for symptoms similar to bird flu. Van lies 800 km east of the Turkish capital Ankara.

Akdag said on 4 January that medical authorities have identified "six suspicious positive cases" of bird flu, including the two other Kocyigit children.

They are being given Tamiflu, the only anti-flu treatment that has proved at all effective against the H5N1 virus strain. Health authorities say that the death rate for this strain of avian flu is 58 percent.

More than 70 people in Southeast Asia and China have died of the disease since late 2003, nearly 40 of them in 2005 alone.

On The Flu Path

Turkey has suffered two outbreaks of the highly contagious and deadly disease in the past three months.

The Kocyigit family lives about 100 km south of Aralik, a village on the flight path of migratory birds blamed for the spread of the epidemic.

Turkish officials said in early December that they had eradicated the avian flu virus in that region after testing thousands of samples and culling 10,000 birds.

However, Aralik was put under quarantine last week after fowl there tested positive for bird flu.

The European Union says that it will send veterinary experts and epidemiologists to Turkey to review the situation in the country. The UN's World Health Organization (WHO) is doing the same.

Michael Mann, the European Commission spokesman, on 5 January reassured Europeans that the complete ban on any import from Turkey of live birds and products from poultry adopted in early October 2005 remains in place."

Bird flu remains mainly an animal disease.

Experts fear, though, that it could mutate after merging with human strains of flu.

Studies show that the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people emerged when an avian flu virus mutated into a form that was then passed from human to human.

Public health officials say there has been no indication that the virus is being transmitted from human to human.

Health Minister Akdag said there is no indication of human transmission of the virus in Turkey.

He called on the population to remain calm, assuring them that Turkey has adequate supplies of flu vaccine. The country's authorities have informed the World Health Organization of developments, Akdag said.

Bird flu has also been detected in Romania, Croatia, Russia, and the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.

Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council in Britain, said in a recent interview with RFE/RL that the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia must be prepared to battle the spread of bird flu because they lie on bird migration routes. "This doesn't necessarily mean that transmission to humans or the pandemic will happen in Eastern Europe or Central Asia," he said. "But it does mean that the subsequent flow of the disease is almost certainly likely to pass from its origins -- perhaps in China or Vietnam or in Thailand or Cambodia -- through Eastern Europe and Central Asia."

Akdag said a special Health Ministry team was due to arrive in Van on 5 January to determine what other measures might be taken "to eradicate the disease in the area."