Bird Flu Alarm

2006-01-08-World facing grave situation

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-01-08-World facing grave situation

Turkish and European health officials prepare to tour an eastern region today hit by bird flu after a British laboratory confirmed that two siblings who died this week from the virus were infected with the deadly H5N1 strain.

The cases were the first human fatalities from H5N1 outside east Asia, authorities said.

A British lab has detected H5N1 in samples from the 14-year-old boy and his 15-year-old sister, World Health Organisation spokeswoman Maria Cheng told The Associated Press in Geneva on Saturday.

Tests had not been completed on samples from their 11-year-old sister, who died of suspected bird flu on Friday. The lab also confirmed that a five-year-old who was hospitalised was infected with the deadly strain, Cheng said.

A Turkish Health Ministry official said that a fourth child, an eight-year-old, is also infected with H5N1, according to preliminary tests by Turkish labs. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

The British lab had yet to confirm that the eight-year-old had tested positive for H5N1, Cheng said.

Their doctor said they probably contracted the illness by playing with dead chickens.

Authorities are closely watching H5N1 for fear it could mutate into a form easily passed among humans and spark a pandemic. Birds in Turkey, Romania, Russia and Croatia have recently tested positive for H5N1.

A delegation of WHO representatives, European health officials and Health Minister Recep Akdag were expected to assess the situation in the eastern city of Van today. The visit was postponed yesterday because of bad weather.

Akdag urged calm, but Dr. Gencay Gursoy, head of the Istanbul Physicians Association, said the situation was grave.

"Turkey and the world are facing the threat of a serious infection," he said.

The WHO is investigating whether the disease had been transmitted from human to human, Cheng said earlier. But Akdag said there was no reason to suspect it had.

Cheng said the spread of the disease from east Asia, where it has killed more than 70 people, was "a concern," but that the global risk assessment of a human pandemic was unchanged.

"Right now these new cases in Turkey ? they don't elevate the global risk assessment, so we?셱e still in the same pandemic alert phase that we?셶e been in for the last couple of years," Cheng said. "But it's something that needs to be monitored very closely."

So far, H5N1 has been capable in rare cases of passing from poultry to humans in close contact with them, but not from human to human.

Dozens of people with flu-like symptoms, who had recently been in close contact with fowl, were hospitalised across Turkey yesterday. News reports said up to 30 people were hospitalised in Van hospital where the three siblings died and tests were underway to determine if any of them had contracted bird flu.

Akdag said none of the cases outside of Van appeared to be "probable" bird flu cases.

Understanding Avian Influenza