Bird flu outbreak slows down in Turkey

A bird flu outbreak that killed four children this month seems to have stabilized after authorities destroyed 1.5 million fowl to contain the virus, and no human cases have been reported since Jan. 18. But Turkey still faces a threat from the lethal H5N1 bird flu strain. Although it has not proved as deadly in Turkey as in East Asia, where more than half of those infected have died, U.N. experts warn that does not mean the virus was becoming less dangerous.

A senior EU health official warned Friday that more Turkish cases of bird flu in humans are likely. "I would not at all be surprised if there were sporadic cases" of humans being infected by the H5N1 strain in Turkey, said Angus Nicoll, of the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, the risk of the deadly virus spreading to Europe may not increase unless there are big clusters of cases in Turkey or other countries, indicating that the strain has become more virulent, said Nicoll, who examined the Turkish outbreak as part of a World Health Organization-led response team.

"I would be quite concerned if they had actual clusters," Nicoll said. "Clusters (are) what we are looking for, and we haven't seen that in Turkey."

Out of the 21 people who tested positive for the H5N1 strain, four children have died. Three people remain hospitalized in stable condition in the eastern cities of Van and Erzurum, authorities said. Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker said Sunday that the outbreak has slowed but the threat was not eliminated. "We're maintaining our fight," he said.

The country's hard-hit poultry industry is also fighting to regain the confidence of consumers through newspaper advertisements. "Be patient my bird, they had called me Mad too," a cow tells a cock in an ad published in several newspapers this week.

Experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions. Bird flu has swept vast parts of East Asia, decimating poultry populations and killing at least 81 people since 2003.

The U.N. bird flu chief, David Nabarro, said international health experts were studying the virus to determine why the human death rate in Turkey was relatively low.

"We must still maintain utmost vigilance for and preparations for the next human influenza pandemic," Nabarro said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting on Friday. Nicoll praised Turkey for its transparent response to the outbreak, saying the government was quick to ask for help and follow WHO guidance.

However, Nabarro blamed Turkey for failing to make sure in October that an H5N1 outbreak among birds in western Turkey was totally under control. The disease went relatively unnoticed by Turkish authorities until the human cases started occurring in eastern Turkey in late December and early January, he said.

"The bird flu got into Turkey toward the end of last year around October-November and got distributed quite widely in the country by the movement of poultry around the country," Nabarro said Friday, reports the AP. I.L.

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