Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Uneasiness about Turkey

British scientists say they may shortly complete the complete sequencing of at least one of the Turkish H5N1 viruses isolated from the recent spate of Turkish cases (Xinhuanet). This is a remarkable feat and points to the new capabilities that can be mobilized in the service of international health. Six samples have reached the World Influenza Centre in northern London and results are expected shortly.

One of the first questions that may be answered is whether the isolated virus is resistant to Tamiflu (my guess is not, since it hasn't been under selective pressure in Turkey). Some questions about the origin (geographic area, role of migratory birds) may also be answered, but at this point there is too little knowledge of the relationship of the genetic sequences to the biology, clinical characteristics and epidemiology to expect a great deal of new information. That will only come as more sequencing is done and compared to an analysis of events on the ground. This will take months and years. But some important associations might emerge soon. At least we can hope so.

Meanwhile reports of sick Turks flooding health care facilities continue and several suspected cases have come from the Western tourist town of Kusadasi and the regional capital Ayudin. (from Monsters and Critics.com). The reporting of cases has become confused (or at least confusing) with either fifteen confirmed cases or fifteen new cases piled on top of variable numbers of suspected cases. We have not been able to get a good fix on the number of likely cases at this time, but it is clear this is one of the largest outbreaks of H5N1 in humans to date. It will almost certainly surpass the Hong Kong outbreak of 1997 (18 cases).

The repeated assurances that there is "no evidence" that the virus has changed behavior are becoming more and more hollow, but we will have to wait and see. Everyone following the situation, whatever they say, are extremely uneasy.