WHO wants to take blood tests, throat swabs of Turks in crisis areas to combat bird flu
ANKARA, Turkey – The World Health Organization, anxious to get a better understanding of the deadly bird flu strain spreading across Turkey, said Friday it has asked the government for permission to send teams into villages to take blood samples, swab throats and interview families.Gueneal Rodier, a communicable diseases expert at the U.N. agency, told The Associated Press that WHO is particularly keen to investigate whether the virus is mutating into a form that could become easily transmissible from person to person.So far, health experts have focused on 18 cases in Turkey of people confirmed to be infected with the deadly H5N1 strain and on others hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. Among the 18 cases confirmed by Turkish authorities, three were siblings who died last week.The three were the first known deaths from the virus outside of East Asia, where at least 77 have been killed by an outbreak of bird flu since 2003. The WHO said Friday that a 29-year-old Indonesian woman who died this week had tested positive for bird flu, bringing its toll worldwide to at least 79 people. WHO has so far only confirmed two out of the three deaths in Turkey were from the H5N1 strain.Most of those who died had been in close contact with infected birds.The new thrust, if approved by Turkey’s Health Ministry, would give WHO investigators a chance to take a closer look at cities and villages where H5N1 has taken hold to determine how the virus is spreading and who appears to be at risk. Blood tests would reveal whether people were carrying the virus – even if they had not developed symptoms – and whether they showed evidence of antibodies.”We have some question marks. We may gather elements that show us how things are changing,” Rodier said.He said Turkey’s Health Ministry was “open and aware of the opportunity we have to learn about this disease.” A senior ministry official told the AP that the WHO would be granted permission for its investigation.Turkish officials were slaughtering thousands of birds as a precaution. As of Friday, workers had killed 455,000 fowl, Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker said. His office said bird flu was confirmed or suspected in birds in 26 of the country’s 81 provinces.”We’re trying to break the link between birds and humans by destroying fowl,” said Hurrem Bodur, a senior Turkish health official. “Most of those fowl might have been culled in vain, but there is no other way to break the chain.”The task of destroying poultry was getting easier as residents became aware of the health crisis, said workers in Seslitas, 15 miles outside the city of Dogubayazit where the three children died last week.”From now on, birds are finished for us. We won’t raise them,” said Yildirim Elci, 25, who was helping his family hand over birds they had kept beneath the entrance to their house and in a stone pen off to the side.Authorities have said all the cases in Turkey appeared to have involved people who touched or played with infected birds, and there was no evidence pointing to direct infection between people.However, some experts worry that H5N1 could become entrenched in Turkey, and that a permanent presence on the rim of Europe would pose a threat to the rest of the continent as well as to Africa, because the country lies on a migratory route for wild birds.”We are expecting this constant threat for months to come,” Rodier said.—Associated Press reporters Selcan Hacaoglu and Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Benjamin Harvey in eastern Turkey contributed to this story.