Saturday, January 14, 2006

Turkish lessons

The news from Turkey hasn't changed dramatically but it is revealing some of its consequences, some of them obvious.

Six patients in the hospital for suspected bird flu took off without notifying anyone. It is generally assumed that at the start of a pandemic authorities will isolate cases and perhaps institute quarantine (i.e., segregate those exposed but not yet ill). Not likely it will work, and it certainly won't work well enough to bottle up an outbreak in a particular region or country.

As if to underscore the point, a man just back from Turkey checked himself into a hospital in Brussels, Belgium, complaining of flu-like symptoms. He is currently being tested, but this shows how easily the virus could get out of any area we try to confine it. Results of the tests are due later today.

And in Turkey itself, although relatively few people have become ill, the effects are widespread and possibly profound for the country's history:
In Turkey, the outbreak of bird flu is changing the rural scenery and threatening a way of life.

Yet up to now, there has been no significant discussion of what Turkey's countryside might look like when the bird flu crisis passes, or how its impoverished people will get by without the domestic birds on which many of them rely.


Because of the risk, Health Minister Recep Akdag has insisted raising birds in backyards must be "history," and the sooner Turks learn that, the better.

Yet the state has not come up with a long-term plan to compensate people for what could be a painful upheaval, other than to pay a basic market rate of $3.70 for delivering a chicken or a duck to authorities, $11 for a goose and $15 for a turkey.

No rules have been drawn up for the post-crisis period, and it was unclear if people would be banned from raising poultry altogether or be allowed to keep birds in enclosed spaces like coops to keep poultry from mingling with wild fowl — a costly prospect for poor families.

In parts of the east, where raising birds in backyards is a way of life for nearly every family and a means of surviving for some, many scared residents have vowed off poultry, but don't seemed to have grasped the implications.


Many believed Turkey would look after them.

"The state will take care of us," said Kahraman Duman, 56, who on Friday gave up seven geese, eight chickens and a turkey to men in white protective suits who would bag, bury and disinfect them. "It's OK if it's forever."

But one official rounding up poultry in Seslitas on Friday seemed to doubt the government would come through.

"They fed their kids with their eggs. They don't have other money. They'll be ruined," the official from the Dogubayazit Agriculture Ministry said as he jumped a stone fence to go from one house to the next. He would not give his name because Turkish officials are rarely allowed to speak to the media.

Domestic birds have been eliminated from the landscape in towns and villages where the virus has been found, like Aralik near the Armenian border, believed to be the starting point of the last series of outbreaks.

They soon will disappear from other towns across the country. Officials said Friday the virus has been confirmed in 13 of Turkey's 81 provinces and is suspected in 18 more.


On Aralik's back streets, chicken coops were empty, and aside from wild fowl on power lines and a pile of feathers here and there, there was no sign of bird life.

"It's hard, we need to eat. We used the eggs, we used the meat," said Melek Guzelkaya, 52, who said she gave up 30 chickens. "We're waiting from an answer from the state." (USA Today)
All this just from the threat of pandemic flu. In the event of an actual pandemic there will be more lessons, many of them bitter.

And then, no doubt, we will proceed to forget them.

Update, 3:53 pm EST, 1/13/106: Deutsche Welle is reporting that preliminary tests for H5N1 on the journalist just returned from Turkey who checked into a hospital in Brussels are negative. This was not unexpected, but past experience now says we should not close this until confirmatory tests rule-out infection.