by Hilmi Toros
(IPS) ISTANBUL -- Human deaths from the bird flu virus have taken a giant leap from East Asia to Turkey. Where next, if anywhere?
While previous human casualties had been confined to the 'epicenter' in Southeast Asia, Turkish health officials belatedly acknowledged that three children died from the effects of the avian influenza in the rugged eastern part of the country, after first attributing the deaths to pneumonia.
The victims are believed to have contracted the virus from contact with chicken stricken by the deadly H5N1 virus carried by migrating birds.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports 76 deaths from the deadly strain of bird flu since late 2003. So far there has been no human-to-human contamination that could lead to a feared pandemic, but a fear this could happen is taken seriously by world health experts.
Cases of animals and people stricken by the avian influenza have spread rapidly from Turkey's impoverished east, and are now suspected in 17 towns, including Istanbul, a sprawling metropolis of 13 million.
More than 100,000 birds have been culled in Turkey. People are being asked to abstain from any contact with fowl, in a country where many villagers keep hens in their backyards. Bird hunting is banned.
"Turkey and the world are facing the threat of a serious infection," Dr Gencay Gursoy, head of the Chamber of Physicians told Turkish television.
The sudden outbreak in Turkey is further complicated by fears -- discounted by authorities but upheld by scientists -- that the virus may have affected sheep at the beginning of the Eid el-Adha holidays in Muslim Turkey. More than two million sheep are being sacrificed during the holidays.
The big 'tavuk' (chicken) industry in Turkey that offers chicken kebab on skewers and chicken 'doner' on revolving spits, is being grounded after flying high as an alternative to red meat.
The aim is to contain and eradicate the virus within the country before it spills beyond the borders, says Juan Lubroth, a senior officer at the animal production and health division of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
But the threat is real in "regional hotspots" that include nearby Syria, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and southern Ukraine on the Black Sea, he told IPS.
The UN expert said Europe's "heightened awareness" in raising poultry under one roof, and its up-to-date veterinary services indicate that Europe could cope with a possible spillover.
But some in Europe are already alarmed. In Italy, where the first bird flu was identified a century ago, former health minister Girolamo Sirchia declared that the country is ill prepared for any outbreak.
Health minister Francesco Storace has urged speedy EU-wide coordination, saying that Italy would go alone if necessary to protect its 4 billion-euro-a-year ($4.8 billion) poultry sector. Losses from declining poultry consumption are put by producer associations at 500 million euro ($600 million) already.
The minister raised the spectre of a travel ban to affected areas in the Middle East. No poultry is making its way to Europe from most Middle East countries.
Through the current crisis, Romania and Croatia have reported positive animal cases earlier, all now believed to be under control without any consequences to human health.
Still, "Europe is on high alert," says Christine McNab of WHO. It is not known what birds now in the south will bring to Europe when they migrate north later in the year.
The big unknown -- and fear -- remains Africa, animal health experts say.
While the main bird migration into Africa is over for the season with no major outbreak reported, the consequences of contact between migrating and local birds is uncertain.
But in the event of a major outbreak, most African veterinary and health services are ill-equipped to deal with it, with some exceptions such as Egypt, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, the UN official said.
"The potential spread of the virus to African countries could be a disaster," FAO director-general Jacques Diouf wrote in an article last October.
The H5N1 is primarily a bird virus, but experts say it could mutate into a form transmitted among humans. If it does, it could kill millions within months.
The disease has cropped up at irregular intervals in all regions of the world. Apart from the current outbreak in Asia, recent epidemics have occurred in Hong Kong in 1997-1998 and 2003, in The Netherlands in 2003, and in the Republic of Korea in 2003.
Since 1996, the bird flu has had devastating effect in parts of Asia, where more than 150 million chickens and ducks either died from the disease or were culled. The economic impact on affected countries is estimated by the FAO at more than $10 billion.
The FAO says that this year the virus spread westward along the paths of migratory birds flying from Southeast Asia. In July and August, outbreaks spread progressively to Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and reached Turkey, Romania and Croatia in October.
The FAO, which is proposing a $175 million global action plan against the bird flu, says the means to combat it include strengthening veterinary services, isolating poultry, effective vaccination, close monitoring, and quick culling..
It is also asking for a limiting of close contact between humans and domestic poultry and wildlife, that chickens, ducks and other domestic species be kept apart, and poultry production kept separate from wild birds.
But the UN organization is also warning against undue alarm that would restrict trade of healthy poultry (EU exports alone amount to 1 billion dollars a year). It is asking for cooking at above 70 degrees Celsius.
January 10, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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