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Bird Flu: Turkey Scrambles To Contain Disease, As Deaths Reported In China

Poulty culling in Turkey (file photo) (epa) Bird flu (avian influenza) continues to grab headlines worldwide. Two more deaths from the virus were reported in China today. And Turkey remains the focus of world attention, with countrywide outbreaks among poultry and 15 confirmed human cases, including two fatalities. But there is also a new twist to the story. Some infected people in Turkey show no signs of illness, while a new study carried out in Vietnam suggests the disease may be more widespread among humans yet produce milder symptoms than previously thought.

Prague, 11 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Gulten Yesilirmak is the human face of bird flu.

Yesilirmak is the latest confirmed case in Turkey of humans infected with the potentially lethal virus. From her hospital bed in the central province of Sivas, Yesilirmak has recounted a common story of the sick, all of whom experts believe contracted the virus through direct contact with infected birds.

"My chickens died and I threw them away with my bare hands. After I did that I began to develop a sore throat and a high fever and I had a really bad headache and it continued for a while. It was then that I came [to the hospital]," Yesirilmak said.

At least two children -- siblings -- have died of bird flu in Turkey, the first such fatalities outside East Asia. Tests are still pending on a deceased third sibling.

A study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm suggests the infection rate among humans may be higher than previously thought, and that its symptoms may actually be milder.

Two more deaths were also reported today in China, bringing to 78 the number of known human deaths worldwide from bird flu, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO said today that Turkey is taking appropriate measures to handle its outbreak of bird flu. But it warned that neighboring nations remain at risk and should continue to take every precaution.

"Any countries in the regions which have situations in the rural areas similar to what we have here in Turkey could obviously have some diseases in animals and potentially in humans and that requires to strengthen surveillance systems both for humans and animals and to take all the measures necessary to control diseases in animals," the head of the WHO’s mission in Turkey, Guenael Rodier, said.

While Turkey is also the first country outside East Asia to report any human outbreaks of bird flu, it is the first anywhere to have multiple animal outbreaks simultaneously. Cases were reported this week in 16 cities, from eastern Van to Aydin on the western coast.

But that’s not all that’s odd about Turkey’s outbreak. Two brothers, aged 4 and 5, who have tested positive for the lethal H5N1 strain have shown no symptoms of the disease under monitoring in an Ankara hospital.

The WHO’s Rodier said the two children are providing a rare chance to monitor the human response to the illness. "The New York Times" reported today that doctors are unsure if the kids are simply in the early stages of the disease or whether they are discovering that H5N1 does not always lead to serious illness.

That possibility, meanwhile, was also mentioned in a new study carried out by Swedish experts in Vietnam and published yesterday in the U.S. medical journal, the "Archives of Internal Medicine."

The study, by experts from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, suggests the infection rate among humans may be higher than previously thought, and that its symptoms may actually be milder.

Dr Anna Thorson, who led the study, has said it still needs to be verified by further studies, but suggested its results offer both good and bad news.

"The good thing being that the avian influenza or H5N1 perhaps doesn’t always cause the very severe disease that we have heard too many reports about. The bad thing being that there is a potential increased risk for the H5N1 mixing with the human influenza virus and mutating or re-assorting into a potentially more contagious virus that could transmit between humans more easily," Thorson said.

Experts have long warned that bird flu mutating into a form passable from person to person could cause a pandemic, potentially killing millions worldwide.