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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006, 00:17 GMT
Turkey's poultry cull makes slow progress
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Dogubeyazit

Culling of birds at Dogubeyazit in eastern Turkey
Fears are mounting that the official response to the crisis is too slow
More than a week after the first child died of bird flu in Turkey, the authorities in his hometown are still battling to contain the outbreak.

An emergency cull of all poultry has been ordered.

Dogubeyazit officials say that they have already slaughtered more than 21,000 birds but the job is far from complete.

Aynur's one-storey stone hut is just a few minutes from the centre of this remote town in the hills close to the Iranian border. But the young mother of four is still waiting for someone to come and remove her birds to slaughter.

There's no outward sign they're sick - the six chickens and one duck are still wandering free around the yard. Aynur's children play alongside them.

"I try to keep my kids inside now but I know they still play with the duck," Aynur admits as one child rolls a snowball through the dirt behind her.

"No-one came to give us any information about bird flu. They just say relax, calm down. But three children have died in this town and we don't know what to do. I'm really worried."

They haven't made it to Aynur yet but teams of men in white protective suits and masks are still going door to door rooting out poultry.

Limited resources

Often they're forced to chase squawking chickens round yards before bagging them for slaughter and spraying the whole area with disinfectant.

There are only around 50 men employed in the cull but the official responsible says his team are only slow because they're thorough.

Van - 7, including 2 deaths
Ankara - 3
Kastamonu - 2
Corum - 1
Samsun - 1
A third death is being treated as a "probable" case

"We're working properly, according to the rules and with limited resources," says Kersin Bey says. "People want us to go immediately to them and take the chickens away with our bare hands but we can't do that."

There's been some resistance to the cull from locals too, reluctant to hand over their animals to the authorities.

"I would have given them up myself," one woman insists as the culling team finally catches up with her. "But all my chickens are healthy."

The authorities are trying to overcome widespread ignorance about bird flu with speeches booming across town on loudspeakers. "Do not approach any sick chicken," one announcement shouts. "Wash your hands well after contact with poultry."

Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag
Health minister Recep Akdag had a mixed reception in the affected area

There are now public health warnings on television too - all steps to try to stop avian flu from spreading to any more humans.

By Monday night, 14 people in Turkey had tested positive for the potentially deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu. Four have been confirmed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) lab in London.

In an attempt to stem the fear along with the virus here, Turkey's health minister is currently visiting the areas affected by bird flu. He was cheered into Dogubeyazit by some who lined his route but others harangued the minister for what they see as serious failures here.

Human transmission

Many locals believe the cull of poultry here is dangerously slow and they're angry at medical staff who they say refused to take the original cases seriously.

But in an interview with the BBC, health minister Recep Akdag denied that the bird flu situation in Turkey is anything like out of control.

"We have not lost control of this situation," he said. "There is no disease in urban areas and the only human cases were infected through contact with poultry."

That's what the team of experts from the WHO is in eastern Turkey to find out for sure. They're conducting their own research to see if they can rule out the much feared human to human transmission of bird flu that could spark a pandemic.

"We need a full assessment of the scale of the outbreak in birds in Turkey," believes Guenael Rodier, the man heading the WHO mission to the region. "It seems many more birds are infected here than we originally thought."

Curbing the flu in birds would be the first step to preventing any further outbreak in humans. But the virus has already spread across Turkey in what looks like an inexorable march westwards.

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