Preliminary tests showed that at least 14 Turks, two of whom have died, tested positive for a deadly strain of bird flu, officials warned Tuesday as the number of patients hospitalized with symptoms climbed to about 70. The United Nations' health agency so far has confirmed only four of those cases as the deadly H5N1 strain, but it warned that each new human case increased the virus' chances for mutating into a form that could pass from human to human and spark a pandemic.
"The more humans infected with the avian virus, the more chance it has to adapt," Guenael Rodier, a senior World Health Organization official for communicable diseases, warned Monday. "We may be playing with fire."
U.N. and Turkish authorities urged citizens to follow health guidelines for working with poultry, and to prevent children from coming into contact with dead birds.
The WHO on Monday raised its own count of preliminary positive cases in Turkey to 10, but maintained its confirmed count at four "because we don't have the complete laboratory information" on the other 10, WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said in Geneva.
Private CNN-Turk television on Tuesday reported that yet another person, hospitalized in the central Anatolian city of Sivas, tested positive for bird flu. But authorities had not confirmed the report and it was unclear if the person tested positive for the deadly strain.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen people were admitted to hospitals across Turkey with flu-like symptoms on Tuesday, including four in the western town of Aydin, where the virus in fowl was detected a day earlier in the Aegean resort town of Kusadasi, just across from the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean Sea.
Turkish authorities already have hospitalized more than 60 people with flu-like symptoms who had come into close contact with fowl. On Tuesday, workers continued culling birds across the country as Turks flocked to mosques at the beginning of the Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday of the Islamic year. They prepared to sacrifice sheep, rams, bulls or camels to commemorate the biblical account of God's provision of a ram for Abraham to sacrifice as he was about to slay his son.
Some Turks were worried that sacrificing animals could be dangerous with the virus in the air, but health authorities tried to comfort them, saying there was no risk. Turkish officials said that by Monday they had culled 106,000 fowl to combat the outbreak.
Health officials are watching the disease's spread and development, while WHO labs are testing for genetic changes in the virus that could allow it to be transmitted between humans and spark a pandemic, reports the AP. I.L.