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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 19:51 GMT
Turkey bird flu region still wary
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Dogubeyazit, Eastern Turkey

Ferhat (front) and his family
Ferhat (front) was in hospital for more than a month with bird flu
Munching a biscuit on his mother's lap, Ferhat appears the picture of good health.

But a few weeks ago the four-year-old caught the deadly strain of bird flu. He has just been discharged by his doctors after 45 days in hospital.

"He got a fever, then a stomach ache and a nose bleed," his mother Ayse recalls.

"His tummy was so tender he screamed if I touched it. We took him to hospital and at first the doctors said he'd caught pneumonia."

That diagnosis soon changed to bird flu - a disturbing finding for his parents in a region where four children had already died of the virus.

But Ferhat was treated very quickly and the only trace of his illness today is a slight infection on one lung.

Unusually for this region, his family did not keep live poultry at home. They think he may have caught the virus by eating infected chicken - but no-one is really sure.

"I'm really worried because I know bird flu is still here in Turkey," Ayse admits, still shaken by her experience. "It's such a bad disease. It takes such a long time to treat."

Human risk

Ferhat was the last person with avian flu in Turkey still being treated by medics.

Although the H5N1 virus has now been detected in poultry in more than 30 provinces across the country, there have been no new human cases for more than a month.

We shouldn't go near it and we shouldn't touch it because we may catch bird flu

Tucked into the mountains on Turkey's eastern border with Iran, Dogubeyazit was at the heart of the devastating outbreak in January.

Most families in this poor region live in close contact with their animals, a habit that helped the virus spread from poultry to humans.

Children were the worst affected - many used to play with or feed the birds their families kept at home.

But since the outbreak the local authorities have conducted a mass education campaign about bird flu.

Outside their small school in Ferhat's village, the children running around the muddy yard now know exactly what to do if they see a sick bird.

Baki and his turkeys
It is forbidden to keep live birds but some people are breaking the rules
"We shouldn't go near it and we shouldn't touch it because we may catch bird flu," Ebru explains.

"It's a very bad virus if you catch it," her friend interrupts. "We used to play with the chickens and touch them. But we are safe now because they collected them all up."

More than 75,000 birds have been slaughtered in Dogubeyazit and the surrounding villages since the avian flu broke out here. Although the official quarantine period is over, there is still a ban on transporting all winged animals in the region - and it's forbidden to keep live poultry.

But now the initial panic has subsided it is not difficult to find people breaking those rules.

In the backyard of one house just a short distance from Ferhat's, half a dozen geese and chickens wander freely through the last of the winter snow. Two yards down, an elderly man in a knitted hat scatters a handful of feed for two fat turkeys.

"I bought these birds 15 days ago to feed up and breed," Baki says, but he keeps his eyes averted.

"They said on TV that bird flu was over, so I went out and bought the turkeys."

Nervous wait

Given the official restrictions, it is far more likely Baki and his neighbours hid the birds from the culling teams - convinced they were healthy and anxious not to part with a cheap source of protein.

The birds that flock to the wetlands could bring the virus back

"We do get calls telling us that someone still has chickens, so we go and inspect them," local agriculture office head Kasim Dilmen explains, as those villagers who have obeyed the culling order arrive to collect their compensation.

"If there is no sign the birds are sick we don't do anything, though. There is no flu virus here at the moment so we just ask people to keep the birds indoors."

But the agriculture office still has not given Dogubeyazit the all-clear - for good reason.

The town lies beside a vast wetland area that is a magnet for migrating birds, thought to be the source of the H5N1 outbreak. For now the water is still covered in a thin blanket of ice but it has already cracked around the edges and even before it melts completely, the migrating birds will be back.

The fear is they will bring the bird flu virus back to Dogubeyazit, as they journey north. The coming weeks will put Turkey's protection measures to the test.

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