Turkey scrambles to contain deadly outbreak as bird flu causes jitters across Europe
ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey raced to contain an outbreak of bird flu Tuesday, destroying 300,000 fowl and blaring warnings from mosque loudspeakers, after preliminary tests showed at least 15 people have been infected with the deadly H5N1 strain.As the country recorded the first human deaths outside eastern Asia, jittery European governments stepped up border checks and hosed down Turkish trucks with disinfectant.Fifteen cases in one week is a record for the current bird flu outbreak. Never before has such a high number of cases been seen in such a short time in Asia, where 76 people have died since 2003.European governments, scrambling to avoid the specter of a mutation that could trigger a pandemic capable of killing millions, sprayed trucks from Turkey with disinfectant. In Italy, a consumer group urged the government to impose a ban on travel to Turkey, and in Greece, veterinary inspectors stepped up border checks.Underscoring the vulnerability neighboring countries feel, Bulgaria began issuing its citizens special instructions on how to deal with an outbreak.Turkey’s government, anxious to demonstrate to its citizens and the European Union that it was taking decisive action, ordered more than 300,000 fowl destroyed as a precaution. Health officials said Tuesday most of the 70 or so people hospitalized with flu-like symptoms had tested negative for bird flu.Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the notion that “an idea of panic was created, as though the country was invaded.””Everything is under control,” he said, adding that Turkey had no shortage of vaccine or medicines.Erdogan spoke during a visit by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, whose government said Tuesday up to 77 Japanese – most of them chicken farm workers – may have become infected by H5N2, a less potent strain not previously known to infect humans.The bird flu outbreak comes at a difficult time for Turkey.The country has been eager to join the EU, and is working to improve an image marred by allegations of human rights abuses against minority Kurds.Guenael Rodier, a senior World Health Organization official for communicable diseases, said Tuesday the Turkish outbreak appeared to be confined to cases in which the illness spread from birds to humans, rather than person to person.”It seems to be clear that we are dealing with a situation similar to what we have seen in Asia, which means in practice a number of small sites, family clusters of disease involving many children and always with documented or reported contact with infected birds, typically backyard poultry,” he said.Preliminary tests Tuesday showed another person had tested positive for the H5N1 strain, bringing the number of suspected and confirmed cases to 15, a Health Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media. The ministry had given the toll as 15 on Monday, but on Tuesday said one of the earlier cases had not been validated.Two children – siblings in the eastern city of Van – have died from the disease over the past week.The newest case reported Tuesday, a woman hospitalized in the central Anatolia city of Sivas, tested positive for H5N1 in Turkish lab tests, which the WHO has yet to confirm, the Health Ministry official said.WHO officials said initial investigations suggest there is no change in how the disease is spread, and experts are hoping there may be some differences in the behavior of poultry farming families in Turkey to explain the high number of cases. Another possibility is a change in the virus. Tests were under way, the officials said.WHO so far has confirmed only four of the 15 reported cases as H5N1, but said it is confident the remaining samples would be positive. The agency has warned each new human case increases the virus’ chances of mutating into a form easily passed from human to human, sparking a pandemic.Authorities distributed leaflets in eastern regions most affected by the outbreak, cautioning people not to touch fowl, while television spots urged people to wash their hands after contact with poultry.Imams issued warnings through mosque loudspeakers in the western town of Yesilova in Burdur province.Gulsen Yesilirmak said from her hospital bed in Sivas that she felt sick after throwing out dead chickens.”I threw out one, and another died and I threw out that, too. Then I got sick,” Yesilirmak told private CNN-Turk television, struggling to breathe through a protective mask. Her eyes were red.—Associated Press reporters Benjamin Harvey in Van and Selcan Hacaoglu and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.