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Last Updated: Friday, 6 January 2006, 09:24 GMT
Bird flu deaths shock Turkey
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Imam wearing gloves at the funeral
Simple health precautions were taken at Mehmet's funeral
The imam who buried Mehmet Kocyigit in Dogubeyazit, eastern Turkey, wore a white protective face mask.

So did many of the mourners.

The 14-year-old boy died as Turkey's first ever human victim of bird flu. His grave was coated in a layer of lime.

Mehmet's sister Fatma was 15 when she died four days after her brother.

And their 11-year-old sister has now died in hospital.

Turkey's health ministry initially ruled out any link between the sick family and bird flu.

But ministry officials now confirm that the teenagers were killed by the virus - most likely after they came into close contact with infected poultry.

Samples have been sent to a British laboratory for conclusive tests - but experts believe the results are already clear.

Media alarm

The news that avian flu, once restricted to East Asia, has now travelled further west than ever before, is dominating the front pages of all the papers here.

Mourners carry the coffin of Fatma Kocyigit
Authorities initially denied that the children were infected with bird flu
"Turkey in Shock," was the headline in huge letters in Hurriyet on Thursday above a photograph of Mehmet's grave. "Sadly it did turn out to be bird flu," it read.

"Health Ministry reveals the truth!" wrote Radikal, a reference to the initial all-clear from the authorities.

And the caption in Vatan: "O God! It's bird flu."

Despite widespread public concern, the message from the ministries is to avoid panic.

Turkish officials are stressing that these cases do not mark the start of a pandemic.

They have been using endless live TV broadcasts to point out that most people infected with bird flu have still had direct contact with diseased poultry.

But scientists say the problem is that the more cases there are like the Kocyigit family, the higher the chance the virus will mutate into a new form able to spread easily from human to human.

Cramped conditions

Responding to that threat, Turkish authorities have begun culling poultry in the affected town and issued strict safety guidelines for farmers.

The measures taken - disinfectant, explanatory leaflets for locals and restrictions on movement in and out of the area - were all tested last October, when Turkey confirmed its first case of the H5N1 strain bird flu in poultry.

Some 10,000 birds were slaughtered then, and officials declared the virus contained.

But in poorer parts of rural eastern Turkey families live close together and close to their chickens.

It is a way of life that provides a fertile breeding ground for bird flu.

The semi-official Anatolia news agency now reports further outbreaks of the virus among poultry in at least four new regions of Turkey, including central Anatolia.

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