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Avian Flu Arrives in Turkey As Birds Drop by the Thousands From Disease

By Elisabeth Rosenthal


Thousands of birds that died in Turkey in the past week succumbed to the same deadly avian influenza virus that has ravaged Southeast Asia in the past five years, medical tests done in Britain confirmed Thursday. It was the first time that the disease had been reported in Europe.

The development signaled a new phase in the spread of the deadly virus across the globe.

“We can now say that it was definitely the H5N1 virus,” said Dr. Samuel Jutzi, director of the Animal Production and Health Division at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, which tracks animal diseases. But he suggested that the next stop for the virus would probably be countries near Turkey and African nations, rather than western Europe, because the virus is believed to be traveling with flocks of migratory birds moving south for the winter.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has been responsible for tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of animal deaths in Asia since it appeared in 1997. Efforts to control it have cost governments in the region billions of dollars. It has infected about 120 people, generally those in close contact with sick birds. About half of the infected people have died.

The new test results were first announced Thursday morning by the European Union’s health commissioner, Markos Kyprianu, who said the commission was proposing to set aside 1 billion euros to make and distribute flu drugs and vaccines in case of a human pandemic. He urged countries to “stockpile anti-viral” drugs “as the first line of defense” for people.

But Jutzi emphasized that, for now at least, “we continue to state that this is an animal disease, an animal health problem, that we want to deal with aggressively in order to prevent a human pandemic.”

Though the deadly H5N1 strain does not currently spread from person to person, scientists have worried that it may acquire that ability.

The most effective way to prevent such a mutation is to control and squash outbreaks in animals, Jutzi said, noting that U.N. member states had donated only $30 million for that purpose, though $175 million was requested more than two years ago.

“The amount we have is rather ridiculous compared to what health authorities in many countries are investing in stockpiling medicines,” he said. “The international community should invest in preventing the pandemic, rather than just pandemic preparedness.”

The spread of the disease into Europe was predicted by many veterinarians over the summer, after the disease started moving west from Southeast Asia, where there have been frequent outbreaks. It moved into Mongolia, western China, Russia and Kazakhstan — just over the mountains that separate Asia from Europe — borne by migrating birds. Most recently, Iranian health authorities have reported deaths among wild ducks.

U.N. authorities say that Turkey and Romania, which also reported recent bird deaths, quickly took action to control the disease.