Friday, January 06, 2006

Turkey follow-up

The third child of a family in eastern Turkey has succumbed to bird flu. The deaths of these children, aged 11, 14, and 15 are the first human cases outside of asia proper, although the virus is now infecting poultry in Romania, Turkey, Croatia and Russia, so it is firmly settled in eastern Europe and Eurasia. A fourth child of the same family is reported ill. This disease has almost wiped out the offspring of an entire family.

So much is clear. There is much else that isn't. News reports of many more hospitalizations give varying numbers. The Guardian reports 30 other people under treated, having tests or receiving medical care. Public anxiety as a result of the deaths have driven many people to health care providers, clinics or hospitals with worries they may have bird flu. This likely has inflated the figures of those hospitalized as a precautionary measure or for other diseases that might otherwise have stayed at home. It is likely there are other human cases of bird flu among them, but how many is unknown at the moment. It will probably turn out to be a handful, but that is just a guess. If the number is in the dozens, this will be an indication that person to person transmission has been achieved by the virus, but at this point there is no good evidence of this. Even if the final number is a half dozen or less scattered cases, the cases in Indonesia and Turkey are an indication that more efficient bird to human transmission is occurring and the virus changing.

The Turkish authorities are sending medicines (presumably antivirals) to the area and WHO is reportedly sending a team. Public education efforts via the assembly at Friday prayer is being tried to alert people about the dangers of keeping birds. It is not clear what people are being advised to do, however. In this area of Turkey keeping backyard fowl is a necessary part of their nutrition, and as winter temperatures drop the birds are routinely let into the house at night. In the afflicted family, their birds took ill and died and the children reportedly played "catch" with the dead chickens' heads. Now, with a mass culling going on, there will be a tendency for people to conceal their chickens, ducks and geese from the authorities.

The Turkish situation is part of a pattern we will likely see more of. Infected poultry. Initial reports of sick people, first "tested negative" and later confirmed as bird flu. Public anxiety leading to more reports, many or most of which turn out not to be bird flu.Then a smoldering endemic infection in the area, followed by a repeat pattern in another area.

When or if the smoldering in mulitple areas will break out into a conflagration we don't know.