Children regarded at a great risk in Turkey as the number of bird flu cases grows to 21

A 5-year-old boy infected with the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu battled for his life in a hospital in eastern Turkey on Wednesday, while clinics elsewhere admitted at least two other sick children for treatment against possible bird flu. Muhammet Ozcan, one of 21 people who have tested positive for H5N1 in Turkey, was in critical condition and doctors in the eastern city of Van near the Iran border were struggling to reverse an infection that was spreading in his lungs, the hospital said. Muhammet's 12-year-old sister died of the disease on Sunday.

Two children from Turkey's eastern Mediterranean region who had recently come into contact with chickens were admitted to separate hospitals late Tuesday on suspicion of bird flu, and samples from the kids were sent to labs in Ankara for testing, the Anatolia news agency reported.

All but two of the 21 confirmed cases in Turkey have involved children and teens aged 4 to 18. Four of them have died. Just as in East and Southeast Asia, where at least 77 people have died of bird flu since it re-emerged there in 2003, children appear to be particularly susceptible to the deadly H5N1 strain if only because they are more likely to touch or play with diseased birds.

"So far it looks like the same pattern," World Health Organization spokeswoman Maria Cheng told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Cheng said the U.N. health agency did not yet have figures for the number of children who have contracted H5N1 worldwide, and declined to offer an estimate.

In the southeastern province of Mus, local authorities were investigating the suspicious death of a 2-year-old girl, Berfin Alkan, who died some three weeks ago after coming into contact with a cock which the family later ate, Kenan Akbulat, a local health official, said by telephone.

The girl's 15-year-old sister, Nese, was currently hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Akbulat said. Her samples were being tested, and she was reported to be in stable condition.

"Our colleagues are investigating (Berfin's) death. If necessary they may open the grave and take samples for tests," Akbulat said. On Tuesday, preliminary tests detected the deadly strain in a 4Ѕ-year-old child, whose gender was not immediately released. The child was from Dogubayazit the hometown of all four of the children who have died. Samples from the child, who was in intensive care, were being sent to a WHO laboratory in Britain for independent confirmation.

Among those getting treatment were three other children with bird flu symptoms in Istanbul, where Europe and Asia meet at the Bosporus Strait. Officials were waiting to see if tests confirmed that they, too, were infected with H5N1, which would bring the virus in humans right to Europe's doorstep.

With Turks complaining of symptoms still checking into hospitals, there were concerns the virus might still be spreading to people despite the precautionary slaughter of nearly 1 million domestic fowl.

Experts fear the virus could mutate into a form spread easily among humans, triggering a pandemic capable of killing millions. The WHO has stressed it has no evidence of person-to-person infection in Turkey.

Health authorities noted that chickens, geese and turkeys often run free in yards where children play, and that even if youngsters do not touch the birds, they can become infected through contact with contaminated bird droppings.

A team of U.S. influenza experts were holding talks with WHO and Turkish health officials here. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also sent experts to Turkey to help to cure and to fight the disease, reports the AP.

D.M.