Bird Flu Alarm

2006-02-09-Control of Bird Flu Difficult in Iraq

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-02-09-Control of Bird Flu Difficult in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Some Iraqi farmers are letting their birds loose rather than slaughter them and the lack of a proper shipping container has kept the tissue sample of a man suspected of dying of bird flu sitting in Baghdad despite reports it was being tested abroad.

Poor communications, scarce equipment and the dangers of the insurgency are all plaguing efforts to combat bird flu in Iraq.

In Nigeria, meanwhile, the deadly H5N1 strain has been detected in two more northern states and has been killing birds ? some 100,000 ? for weeks, Nigerian authorities said Thursday, raising fears the disease will spread elsewhere in Africa.

Officials say containing the spread of bird flu in Iraq may be beyond the capabilities of health authorities in some parts of the country, particularly volatile Anbar province, center stage of the insurgency.

"Iraq is a special case and has its unique challenges that are especially difficult, obviously because it is a complex environment," World Health Organization spokesman Dick Thompson said from neighboring Jordan.

So far, Iraq's only confirmed human case is a 15-year-old girl who died Jan. 17 in the northern Kurdistan region, Iraq's most stable area with a functioning local administration.

But Iraq has been slow to send samples of other suspect cases ? including the girl's uncle, who died Jan. 27 ? to WHO-certified laboratories in London and Cairo, Egypt, despite saying for more than a week that the shipment had been delivered.

"We didn't have the containers to ship the samples and without them, they wouldn't have been accepted for shipment," Dr. Ibtisam Aziz Ali, spokeswoman for a government committee handling the bird flu crisis, acknowledged Thursday.

She did not say why it had taken so long for Iraq to obtain the containers or explain earlier statements that the samples had been sent. Thompson said the U.N. health agency would send Iraq several containers.

Partial testing of tissue samples taken from humans suspected of having bird flu can be performed at Baghdad's central laboratories, but final verification of the presence of the H5N1 strain must be done by a WHO-approved lab.

Elsewhere, Indonesia said Thursday that two women from the same town have contracted the virus. WHO has so far confirmed 24 human cases in Indonesia, not including the two women.

Nigeria quarantined bird farms throughout its north, and neighboring countries banned poultry imports to try to halt the spread of the virus on a poor continent little prepared to cope with an outbreak of the disease.

The head of the World Health Organization warned that health services across West Africa should be on high alert.

"The confirmation of H5N1 avian influenza in poultry in Africa is a cause for great concern and demands immediate action," said WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook. "The H5N1 virus now confirmed in Nigeria poses a risk to human health and livelihood."

The single most important priority is to warn people about the dangers of close contact with sick or dying birds infected with H5N1, Lee said in a statement.

In Iraq, a six-member WHO delegation, accompanied by two veterinarian scientists from a U.S. Navy lab in Cairo, visited a hospital in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, where a Kurdish health official said 10 people suffering bird flu-like symptoms were admitted. Members also traveled to Raniya, the town where the dead girl had lived.

Many factors complicate Iraqi efforts to battle the outbreak, such as broken infrastructure, an unstable central government, shaky communication networks and constant violence. Inconsistent and contradictory information is also being released by local, regional and national authorities daily.

On Tuesday, health officials in the southern city of Amarah said they were investigating the suspicious death of a 14-year-old pigeon seller who suffered bird flu-like symptoms. On Thursday, Amarah authorities said three of the dead boy's cousins ? two brothers and their sister ? have been hospitalized with similar symptoms.

In Baghdad, vendors set free or gave away scores of birds Thursday as bird flu fears spread. Baghdad's poultry market, Souq al-Ghazzal, has come to a near standstill with people too scared to buy or sell fowl.

"I let my 60 lovebirds go free because I was scared some infected birds would mix with mine and spread bird flu," said Mohammed Jabbar, who collects birds.

In the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, police used loudspeakers to urge people to kill all their birds after hospital officials said a woman was admitted to a hospital suffering symptoms similar to bird flu.

Because of the greater security existing in Kurdistan, health officials were better able to control the spread of the disease and quarantine suspect towns. But doing the same in towns like Fallujah is virtually impossible because of the militant activity.

Understanding Avian Influenza