Offiicials confirmed three children from the same family have died from bird flu in eastern Turkey, marking a major shift westwards to the edge of Europe of a disease that has so far claimed lives in eastern Asia.
Even vendors selling bird feed at a market in Istanbul aren't taking chances
Turkish doctors confirmed that 11-year-old Hulya Kocyigit died on Friday of bird flu, only a day after her 15-year-old sister Fatma succumbed to the illness and five days after their-14-year-old brother Ali met a similar fate. A fourth member of the family is also being treated for bird flu-like symptoms.
The coffin of Mehmet Ali Kocyigit, who died of bird flu, is carried to an ambulance
The Kocyigit family is from the remote town of Dogubeyazit, near Turkey's borders with Iran and Armenia, where many families depend on poultry breeding for their livelihoods and live close to their animals.
The siblings were hospitalized last week after developing typical bird flu symptoms like high fever, coughing and bleeding in their throats. According to reports the family had lived in the same household with infected chickens, which they then consumed. Humans can contract bird flu only if they come into contact with infected birds.
Fears of a mutation
It was not yet clear whether the deaths were caused by the H5N1 version of bird flu blamed for the other fatalities.
But a spokeswoman in Geneva for the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday, following the first two deaths, that the strain considered highly dangerous to humans was the likely culprit.
If that is the case, the deaths would mark the westward spread of a virus that has killed more than 70 people in Southeast Asia and China since late 2003, nearly 40 of them in 2005 alone.
Workers disinfect a road in Heishan, in China's northeast Liaoning province
The H5N1 virus remains hard for people to catch, but there are fears it could mutate into a form easily transmitted among humans. Experts say a pandemic among humans could kill millions around the globe and cause massive economic losses.
But, a U.N. official said the news from Turkey was disturbing but not yet a cause for panic.
"This is not the start of the pandemic. The start of the pandemic starts when there is human to human transfer, confirmed and sustained," Dr. David Nabarro, senior coordinator for avian influenza at the United Nations, told Reuters.
Dogubeyazit is less then 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the town of Aralik, which was quarantined last week after poultry there tested positive for H5.
Officials were still awaiting the results of further tests being conducted in London to determine whether any of the 1,200 birds slaughtered in the village suffered from the H5N1 strain.
Turkish Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker on Thursday confirmed at least four new outbreaks of bird flu in the eastern province of Igdir, where the latest two victims lived, 250 kilometers further west in Erzurum, and 750 kilometers away in Sanliurfa to the southwest.
The first case of H5N1 in the country was uncovered in October at a turkey farm in Kiziksa, a village in the western province of Balikesir abutting a wildlife reserve that is a well-known stopover for migratory birds.
Better information needed
The deaths have sparked a flurry of emergency measures as EU authorities, in particular, nervously eye events unfolding on the edge of the continent.
Turkish authorities have flown in medicine and vaccines to the remote area near the Iranian border where more than 20 people are being treated for possible bird flu symptoms.
Professor Ünal of Hacettepe-university said that it is now crucial to keep people well informed.
Experts say people in rural Turkey have to be better informed about the danger of infected birds
"The families in Dogubeyazit did not know that they have to keep away from animals which suddenly died. Because of the bitterly cold winter, they took the animals into their houses," Ünal said.
" We need to send people there to tell them about bird flu and they need better media access. They must know that they have to stay away from infected animals or at least wash themselves very thoroughly.”
The European Commission said it had sent a veterinary expert to Turkey to help it tackle the bird flu outbreak.
Samples of the sick chickens had been sent to the EU's laboratory in Weybridge, near London, for further tests.