Friday, January 13, 2006

Birdflu spreads, World Bank approves funds

Birdflu spreads, World Bank approves funds

By Paul de Bendern and Gareth Jones

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish authorities struggled to contain a spreading outbreak of avian influenza on Thursday, setting up quarantine zones around infected areas and sending samples of virus to laboratories for testing to ensure it is not evolving into a more dangerous form.

Neighboring countries expressed concern the virus might spread to its poultry flocks. Iraq said it was on high alert, but officials conceded that poor border controls would make it difficult to enforce a ban on importing birds.

Global officials said they were gathering steam to help fight the virus, with the board of the World Bank endorsing $500 million in aid to help countries hit by the virus or that are at high risk.

The World Health Organization said Turkish officials had now documented 18 human cases of H5N1 avian influenza infection and said three children had died. One boy who was found to be infected without being sick had begun to show symptoms, WHO officials said.

"Human cases have now been reported from nine of the country's 81 provinces," the WHO said in a statement posted on its Web site.

The two newest patients are young children, aged 4 and 6, WHO said. "Both have a documented history of direct contact with diseased birds," it said.

"Altogether, agricultural officials have confirmed poultry outbreaks in 11 provinces and are investigating possible outbreaks in an additional 14 provinces across the country."


The more birds are infected, the more likely that people could become infected through close contact. Experts said as cold weather forced animals and people indoors together, especially in rural areas, animal-to-human infections could become even more common.

A British lab found that two of the first Turkish victims were infected with a slightly mutated strain of H5N1.

Although it did not seem to be more dangerous, the mutation in theory could help the virus more easily pass from a chicken to a human. Of gravest concern is that the H5N1 virus will mutate so it passes from human to human.

WHO said its experts were working with Turkish officials to study the virus and its patterns of attack. More samples of virus were en route to labs, WHO said.

"These studies should deepen understanding of the epidemiology of the disease, including the possibility that any human-to-human transmission may have occurred, the vulnerability to infection of health care workers and other occupationally-exposed groups, and the possibility that milder forms of the disease might be occurring in the general population," WHO said.

The good news was that the virus seems sensitive to the few drugs available to treat patients, WHO said.

Turkish officials said they had set up a 2-mile (3-km) quarantine zone around infected areas, and information was being broadcast via television commercials and vans fitted with loudspeakers.

They said they had culled more than 350,000 birds in the past two weeks.

Fears hit poultry markets. The U.S. Agriculture Department said chicken meat exports would be 315 million pounds (143 million kg) less than previously forecast because consumers in Turkey and other countries affected by the deadly bird flu disease were eating less poultry.

Globally H5N1 has infected 147 people and killed 78 of them, according to the latest official WHO tally, which includes only four of the Turkish cases.


Scientists stressed they have no evidence the virus has become more, and said the same mutation has been seen before without causing a big outbreak. But it shows the need for careful watching and testing, they said.

"When we have a child infected we are giving the virus more chance to adapt to human beings and giving it this chance could help create conditions of the emergence of a new virus," Rodier said in an interview.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the mutation affected the ability of the virus to infect cells. "It is really unclear what this means," Fauci said in a telephone interview.

"This same mutation was identified in 2003 in Hong Kong and yet did not take off in a way that led to greater transmissibility either from chicken to human or human to human."

The World Bank was pressing for funding to help the worst-affected countries cope, and endorsed spending $500 million, ahead of a meeting of donors next week in Beijing where it was hoped $1 billion more would be pledged.

World Bank Vice President Jim Adams told Reuters that Kyrgyzstan would be the first beneficiary and would get $5 million to prepare for bird flu. He said Turkey could be in line for some money, too.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Van, Richard Waddington and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, and Lesley Wroughton, Christopher Doering and Maggie Fox in Washington)