Monday, January 02, 2006

The Turkish cases

The New Years weekend saw a worrying report of six cases of suspected bird flu in Turkey. Four were children, all siblings. Two others were an adult and child in another family, apparently with no relation to the first cases. Today the wires are full of the good news from the Turkish health ministry that tests on the 14 year old who died yesterday "didn't show any trace of the disease, or any other form of influenza." We are also told that blood tests on his three siblings also failed to find evidence of influenza (report via Bloomberg).

Good news about bird flu, yes. If it's true and not wishful thinking. We don't know what tests were done. We do know that some commonly performed tests are subject to false negatives and that later testing shows the presence of H5N1 (the recent Chinese case is an example). Blood samples are being sent on to the World Health Organisation and the European Union for more tests.

So while it may indeed turn out these are not bird flu cases, for the moment the setting is highly suspicious. Bird flu has been reported in poultry within 50 miles of the victims' town in rural far eastern Turkey and they ate chicken just before they fell ill. The chickens had been slaughtered because they had sickened. The cause of death and the siblings' serious pulmonary illnesses has still to be discovered. Fragmentary news reports today only say the child died of pneumonia, not bird flu. But death from bird flu is usually from viral pneumonia.

It is a natural tendency of state bureaucrats to minimize problems. I am not yet ready to dismiss these cases.