Bird flu spreads in Turkey with dozens of suspected cases

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The Independent Online

Bird flu swept westwards through Turkey to the borders of Europe, sending local people scurrying to hospital for tests for the lethal infection. Officials said 78 people were suspected of having the virus which has killed three children in the east and may have infected a dozen more in the capital, Ankara.

In Istanbul, Turkey's largest city and the gateway to Europe, 23 people, half of them children, were being tested in hospital.

Russia banned travel to Turkey yesterday and Iran closed its border with the country.

In the UK, the Health Protection Agency said the risk to the UK remained "very low". It said travellers to Turkey were at low risk but they should "avoid contact with poultry".

A spokesman for the European Commission said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 virus, which would signal the start of a pandemic. All the confirmed cases had come from direct contact with infected birds, he said.

The European Union announced a ban on the import of untreated feathers, used in pillows and duvets, from countries bordering eastern Turkey. Imports of live birds and bird and poultry products from Turkey were banned in October last year. The ban on feather imports, to be formally adopted by EU commissioners tomorrow, will apply to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Since October about 25,000 wild birds have been tested in the EU for avian flu and were found to be negative. There has been no reported case of H5N1 in the EU.

The Turkish Health Ministry reported five new cases in humans in four different cities. There were two cases in Kastomonu on the Black Sea, one in Corum in the central area, one in Samsun, also on the Black Sea coast, and one new case in Van, the eastern province where the three children were infected. Eleven cities have quarantined certain neighbourhoods and more than 100,000 poultry have been culled.

The Health Minister, Recep Akdag, said 14 people had tested positive for the virus, including the three dead children. Speaking in the village of Dogubayazit in the east, close to the Iranian border where the three children lived, he appealed to people to stay away from poultry, and to keep children away from the birds too.

A fourth child from the same family, aged six, was discharged from hospital after being confirmed as free of the disease.

Swedish researchers said that avian flu may be more widespread in humans after a study in Vietnam suggested there could be up to 750 human cases of infection compared with the 87 officially reported.

A study of 45,000 people in the north-west of the country found that 8,000 had had a flu-like illness, of which 650 to 750 cases could be attributed to direct contact with sick or dead poultry. Those infected did not seek hospital treatment and were not counted in official figures.

The finding indicates that the disease may be milder than suggested by the current 50 per cent death rate - based on the official figure of 146 confirmed cases and 76 deaths since 2003. But it also suggests it is more widespread in humans, increasing the chances of a mutation that could trigger a pandemic.