UN experts headed for a remote area of eastern Turkey yesterday to find out whether it is witnessing the start of the much-feared pandemic of bird flu that could kill 150 million people worldwide.
The World Health Organisation, which has sent a team of six to the area, centred on the town of Dogubayazit, in the mountains near the Iranian border, says the result of the investigations should be known "in the next few days". Yesterday, however, fog kept the experts stuck in the capital, Ankara.
The area is already the site of the world's worst outbreak of the disease, which has so far killed about 75 people. And the virus, codenamed H5N1, is spreading rapidly in Turkey.
Three children from the same family in the area, Mehmet, Fatima and Hulya Kocyigit, have died of the disease. Turkish sources said yesterday that tests had confirmed that another two patients had caught it.
In all, 26 people, mainly children, are being treated for suspected bird flu in hospital in Van, where the three siblings died. Ominously it is believed they come from several provinces in the east of the country.
Another six children are in hospital in Diyarbakir, 250 miles south of Dogubayazit, and a family of seven are being treated in Istanbul after travelling from the east of the country.
The total number of cases, the first reported outside China and south-east Asia, is approaching a third of the total of 142 known to have occurred worldwide since 2003. The virus, which it is believed wild birds spread to poultry and then to people, has also been found in birds in several of Turkey's eastern provinces. Yesterday it was detected in two wild ducks at a lake near Ankara, far to the west.
Some experts say the sudden increase in the disease in people means the virus has mutated to enable it to spread more efficiently from poultry to people. They fear also that it may have started to move from person to person, signalling the start of a devastating spread around the world.
But others believe the Turkish outbreak has been fuelled by close contact with infected chickens which have been brought into homes to shelter them from harsh weather.