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TURKEY: The smile of a bird flu survivor

© UNICEF Turkey 2006 Oguz Sagdic
Selami Bas, bird flu survivor

By Bernard Kennedy for UNICEF

Selami Bas sits cross-legged on the low cushion that constitutes to only furniture in the main room of his home in Yakubiye, an impoverished neighbourhood of Sanliurfa in Southeast Turkey.

A shy, brown-haired, four-year-old in a red pullover and denim jacket, he plays constantly with his fingers while a dozen other boys chase up and down the steep alleyway outside. Selami is unique: the only person in Sanliurfa province to have contracted the avian flu virus which has been sweeping the country. And he is lucky to be alive.

Selami developed a slight cough and a temperature on 6 January while he and his father were staying at his grandfather's house in a village some 80 kilometres east of the city. He complained of a sore throat and stomach ache. His father, Mehmet Bas, a construction workers, took him straight to the state children's hospital.

They arrived at around 9 pm. Hospital staff knew that dozens of cases of bird flu had been reported among poultry across Turkey within the previous two weeks. They were also well aware of the growing number of reported cases among humans -- the vast majority of them children. In just the previous two days, three children from Dogubeyazit in the mountainous Northeast of the country had died of the disease.

Despite the religious holidays, doctors were working around the clock to evaluate the rising number of suspected cases. It did not take them long to discover that Selami had been playing with chickens at his grandfather's house. They began administering the drug Tamiflu, and sent Selami's blood samples to a testing laboratory in the capital, Ankara. Two days later, the result came back: it was positive.

© UNICEF Turkey 2006 Oguz Sagdic
A lucky escape

Within two weeks, Selami had been discharged from hospital, fully recovered. Bird flu attacks the respiratory system in human beings and can be fatal unless treated within the first 48 hours. Selami was lucky: his father took the matter seriously, knew where to get treatment and listened to the doctors when they advised him to keep his son in hospital. Eligible for social security, Mehmet Bas never had to pause for a moment and worry about whether the treatment would be free -- in fact, all treatment for suspected bird flu cases in Turkey is completely free of charge.

All the turkeys and chickens in Selami's grandfather's village have now been culled, like thousands of others in the province and around 1.6 million domestic birds across the country as a whole.  Scared of the disease, children here say that they wouldn't want their birds back, although the eggs provided a much-needed source of protein. The village population of thirty to fifty families has been kept under observation, but no other cases have been detected.

A simmering crisis


Life is getting back to normal for the Sanliurfa authorities. The number of people who are going to hospitals, concerned that they have bird flu, has slowed to a trickle. And fewer dead birds are being reported. Nationwide, the number of confirmed cases among human beings remains 12. A total of four children, three of them from the same family, died from the disease in early January after direct contact with diseased poulty, but since then there have been no more fatalities.

Nevertheless, reports of further outbreaks among birds continue. In rural areas and backstreets, millions of families keep their small groups of chickens, turkeys, ducks or geese. The poultry often mingle with other birds and animals, and are typically fed, watered -- and played with -- by children. In most of the country, the cull has been selective and, in many areas, hygiene practices are poor and even schools may lack soap and water. Unlabelled, unpackaged chicken meat is still sold in the bazaars, with no guarantee that the source is safe. And the migratory birds, thought to have introduced the virus to Turkey, will be coming through again in March, on their way home. 

The impact on families and incomes

Members of the Bas family complain that their neighbours are shunning them, and telling their children to keep away from theirs, in the belief that they have bird flu. Not only is this unpleasant for them, it also highlights the low level of awareness about the disease in birds and humans. Now there is concern along the mediterranean coast of Turkey that foreign tourists will stay away this summer, hitting local employment and the economcy. Modern poultry plans are already suffering as the general public shies away from the consumption of chicken and eggs.

The greatest fear in Turkey, as elsewhere, is the possibility that a strain of avian flu will emerge that can be transmitted from human to human as easily as seasonal flu.

For more information

Sema Hosta, Communication Officer, UNICEF Turkey. Tel: (+90 312) 454 1000. email: shosta@unicef.org

 

 
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