Saturday, January 21, 2006

Talking Turkey with the neighbors

Turkey is unhappy with its neighbors, who are undoubtedly unhappy with Turkey. With 21 human cases and outbreaks in poultry throughout the country, Turkey is a focus for infection on the border of Europe. But they doubt they are alone:
Turkey said on Friday its battle against a bird flu outbreak in people and poultry was being made harder by the failure of neighboring countries to admit to having the deadly H5N1 virus.

"It is unofficially known that this illness exists in our neighboring countries which are ruled by closed regimes, but these countries do not declare this because of their systems," Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker told a news conference.

He did not name the countries but Iran and Syria are two likely targets of the criticism. Health experts are concerned neighboring countries are not taking enough preventive measures against bird flu. (Reuters)
And while states like Iran have not admitted to any infected birds, they have culled tens of thousand of them in a strip 15 km deep into their own territory on the borders with Turkey. The Kurds in northern Iraq are also terrified, but do not admit to any cases:
"We are afraid and in a state of high alert in the face of what could be a time bomb," says Azad Ezzeddin Mulla Afandi, the chief agricultural official for the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of two Kurdish parties running the northern provinces, which provide a large amount of poultry and eggs for the rest of the country.

"Despite all the precautions we have taken, we are terrified that the disease will appear here," he says.


Imports of poultry from Turkey were banned in October, while the trade of live chickens in Kurdistan itself was outlawed last week.

"Strict orders were given to poultry farmers to install basins at the gates of their farms to decontaminate vehicles going in and out," says Afandi.

According to him, these measures are being carried out not just in the provinces of Arbil and Dohuk, which are under KDP control, but also in Suleimaniyah, the Kurdish rival run by the KDP's sometime rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The two provinces, which are close to the parts of Turkey that have reported cases of bird flu, are also major producers of eggs and poultry, supplying much of the Iraqi market. (via Kurdmedia)
It is more than plausible that the virus is already in Iraq, as we noted in a post yesterday. Both Iraqi government and WHO sources are discounting the possibility, but samples have been sent to the UK reference lab to confirm the 14 year old girl didn't have the disease. She came from a town near the Turkish border where bird flu is known to exist in poultry flocks and where Turkey's first human cases were discovered. WHO is accepting word of the Iraqi government that she died of heart disease, although they admit that hasn't been confirmed (Dow Jones). WHO seems very quick to discount what, on its face, is a highly probable case of bird flu in this unfortunate young girl.

Which brings us back to Turkey's suspicions. Is Iraq one of those neighboring countries covering up a bird flu problem? If so, it couldn't happen without US cooperation and collaboration. But US authorities have been silent on the issue. One wonders about the effect on US opinion on the war if news emerged there were human cases of bird flu in Iraq.

I would be more inclined to accept the word of WHO and Iraqi authorities if it were based on more solid evidence (see previous post). WHO seems to be taking everyone's word for the fact it isn't bird flu. If it turns out the true diagnosis is H5N1, a scenario that has played itself out numerous times in the past, this will be yet another blow to their credibility. Prudence alone would dictate more caution in WHO's remarks, unless they are under other pressures.

I guess I'm with Turkey on this one. I'm suspicious.