Turkey

Bird flu devastates a family in eastern Turkey

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
Mehmet Emin Ozcan lost his daughter Fatma, pictured in the newspaper, to avian influenza last year after she handled an infected duck. Her brother Muhammed, 5 (centre), was also infected.

By Thomas Nybo

VAN PROVINCE, Turkey, 18 January 2007 – In the shadow of Mount Ararat, a father in eastern Turkey is trying to recover from the death of his 16-year-old daughter, Fatma.  A year after Fatma died from avian influenza, Mehmet Emin Ozcan is still dazed and refuses to believe the doctors who suggest that she became ill after handling an infected duck in the family’s kitchen.

Health experts believe the bird flu virus is infecting high numbers of children like Fatma because they are often the ones responsible for feeding domestic poultry, as well as cleaning the pens and gathering eggs. Smaller children also put themselves at risk when they treat the birds as pets.  

Sudden loss

Mr. Ozcan is only 45 years old, but the wrinkles around his eyes run deep. His face tells the story of a tough life spent outdoors in an unforgiving environment. His first wife died in a hospital – the same hospital to which doctors wanted to send Fatma – and their explanations offer him no solace for the loss of the child he considered his favourite.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
Fatma’s five-year-old brother Muhammed survived bird flu after 17 days on a ventilator.

"Fatma's death came all of a sudden and I have no explanation how she became ill," says Mr. Ozcan. "It was God's decision. I thought, 'Fatma is my child that I love the most!' But God decided to take her away from me." The only photos he has of Fatma are the ones from the newspapers, taken a few days before she died.

Mr. Ozcan has five other children. One of them, Muhammed, 5, also contracted avian influenza. He survived only after spending 17 days on a ventilator.

"Muhammed was also ill, but he did not die," Mr. Ozcan says, looking down at Muhammed, who sits next to the heater in their living room. "So God gave his life back to us."

Prevention messages

Because of Turkey's proximity to Asia, Europe and Africa, migrating birds regularly travel through the country. Infected birds are believed to have passed the virus to domesticated flocks, mostly raised by poor communities. Doctors note that all four children who died here in 2006 had been in close contact with home-raised ducks and chickens. 

After the outbreak hit last year, millions of chickens and other birds were slaughtered in affected countries, including Turkey.  

UNICEF has been working closely with the Government of Turkey to educate people, especially those who raise birds at home, about proper hygiene and protection. UNICEF incorporated six messages into six different public service announcements that were distributed to local and national television stations.

Local religious leaders were also encouraged to incorporate the messages into their sermons.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
One strategy to combat bird flu involves constructing large poultry farms that are hermetically sealed from the outside world.
"Within these messages, we are really focusing on prevention,” said UNICEF Communication Officer Sema Hosta. “You have to keep your children away from the chickens and all the winged animals and wash your hands with soap and water. We have to provide the correct information about prevention at the correct time and with special attention to the children themselves."

Averting a global pandemic

Other measures have been taken as well. The government is setting up a lab in eastern Turkey to quickly diagnose any new cases in the region, using the same testing equipment that is found in top laboratories around the world.  The government is also trying to limit the exposure of domesticated fowl to wild birds.   One strategy involves constructing large poultry farms that are hermetically sealed from the outside world. Such a farm outside of Ankara houses more than 100,000 chickens, yet requires only six people to maintain. 

Despite all of these advancements, though, serious threats remain. New human cases of avian influenza in Asia have already appeared in 2007, and health experts warn that if the virus mutates into a human strain, it could trigger a global pandemic that could kill millions.

Unlike the plentiful vaccines for seasonal influenza, any vaccines effective against a pandemic virus are not ready for commercial production, and would likely take months to become widely available after the start of a pandemic.


 

 

Video

16 December 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports on a father in Turkey who lost his daughter to avian influenza.
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