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Homeland Security

09 January 2006

U.N. Officials Join Turks To Investigate Bird Flu Deaths

Further human cases are expected; USAID works on preparedness

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Three children are dead in rural eastern Turkey, setting off alarms about the appearance of human cases of bird flu on Europe’s doorstep.

The three deaths struck the same family in the rural community of Dogubayazit, with three siblings dying in less than a week. A fourth child in the family has survived a bout of the illness.

A total of 14 human cases of disease caused by the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus known as H5N1 have been confirmed in Turkey, according to a January 9 update from the World Health Organization (WHO).

In Van province, where the young siblings died, 38 more people are being treated for what could be H5N1.  Turkish and international officials are working together to achieve confirmation.

Outbreaks in poultry are occurring in several parts of the country at the same time, and the WHO statement says suspected human cases of H5N1 infection are expected to increase.

Turkey is the sixth nation to discover human cases of H5N1, the first outside East Asia, where this dangerous pathogen first started killing poultry two years ago.

The number of human cases has crept upward steadily over the last few months, at 146 as of January 7, with 76 deaths, according to WHO.

The WHO statement said there is no evidence so far that the virus has become contagious among humans. The latest victims – the dead and the ailing – almost all have what WHO describes as “a documented link to dead or diseased poultry.”

As human cases of bird flu have mounted over the past year, international health officials have warned that this flu strain may have the potential to spread across the globe to become an influenza pandemic comparable to that which killed tens of millions in 1918-1919.

As first news of the human cases emerged from Turkey, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Michael Leavitt reiterated the U.S. commitment to work with the international community to combat disease.

“We will continue our vigorous efforts in concert with the WHO Secretariat, its regional offices and other international partners,” Leavitt said in a January 5 HHS statement, “to track the global spread of the H5N1 influenza virus and to detect human cases as early as possible.”

The WHO statement on Turkey is available on the WHO Web site.

PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS

The discovery of human bird flu cases in a nation thousands of kilometers from where the disease originated highlights the virus’s ability to spread.

Though still apparently not contagious among humans, the virus finds many means of travel – in flocks of migratory wild birds, in shipments of infected birds in agriculture trade or in the mud and dust that travel on a truck from an infected farm.

Just as the virus has spread, so has awareness among world governments of the need to prepare for the possibility of pandemic and improve their ability to understand and control diseases that may pass from animal to human populations.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is engaged with many governments to support and enable these activities.

USAID worked in December 2005 to provide training for 5,000 veterinarians and volunteers in Vietnam, a nation with 93 human cases of H5N1, the highest number of any single nation by far.

These groups are learning to recognize the connections between animal and human health and the need to remain alert for signs of disease moving among species.

That is the key advice that international health authorities have issued on how to detect, contain and prevent disease spread to avert a pandemic.

In January, USAID will support community-based activities that offer village demonstrations on methods for preventing and containing disease in 16 at-risk provinces in Vietnam and Cambodia, according to a December 19 summary of its activities.  (See summary on USAID Web site.)

Experts say that avian influenza has hit Asian nations so widely because traditional methods of raising and selling poultry provide significant opportunities for the disease to pass among animals and people.

The potential of avian influenza to arrive in Africa is another grave concern because infrastructure for both animal and human health care is below international standards there.

Systems for disease detection and surveillance among animals or humans are weak, giving diseases a chance to spread rapidly through people, their livestock or both.

USAID is supporting a program to improve surveillance in Ethiopia, one of the countries that is considered at greatest risk because of populations of migratory birds that fly in from the north.

The U.S. agency is providing assistance to the ministries of agriculture and health in their work to develop better laboratory and communications capacity.

In Tanzania, health officials are taking what the USAID document describes as “aggressive measures to stop potential bird flu cases.”

The Tanzanian government is enforcing a ban on poultry and poultry products from affected countries. A program to examine migratory birds for signs of H5N1 also is under way with USAID support.

Additional information is available on the USAID Web site.

U.S. PREPAREDNESS

In the United States, HHS Secretary Leavitt is spreading the preparedness message far and wide as he works through a schedule of meetings with state and local officials in all 50 U.S. states.

At a meeting in Arizona January 6, Leavitt released a new citizens’ guidebook, Pandemic Influenza Planning: A Guide for Individuals and Families, a tool to help Americans understand the threat of pandemic influenza and specific actions they can take to protect themselves and their families.  (See related article.)

For ongoing coverage, see Bird Flu (Avian Influenza).

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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