ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – Turkey’s agriculture minister accused several neighboring countries Friday of concealing bird flu outbreaks and hampering an effort to prevent the spread of the disease.
Preliminary tests indicate that 21 people in Turkey have been infected with the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, four of whom have died.
The country has reported confirmed or suspected H5N1 outbreaks in poultry in 26 provinces, including areas just kilometers (miles) away from the borders with Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Georgia. On Friday, officials said tests detected H5N1 in a dead chicken in Tekirdag, in Turkey’s Thrace region, close to the borders with Bulgaria and European Union-member Greece.
“We know through unofficial channels that the disease exists … in neighboring countries, which are ruled by closed regimes,” Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker said during a meeting with governors of Turkey’s 81 provinces. He did not name the countries.
“This is something that we need to be careful about,” Eker said, urging governors of border provinces to be especially vigilant.
Syria rejected the accusation and the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said there was no evidence of an H5N1 outbreak in countries neighboring Turkey.
“Syria is free from bird flu despite allusions from Turkey that neighboring countries are hiding that there have been some infections,’ Syrian Agriculture Minister Adel Safar said, adding that the country had taken precautionary measures to prevent its spread, including imposing a two-month ban on the import of fowl from all countries and tightening border controls.
Juan Lubroth, senior officer at FAO’s animal production and health division, said a joint team from the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health would visit the region next week to assess the neighbors’ needs and «to get a sense of whether they are on top of it or not.”
On Monday, the FAO had warned that the bird flu that hit Turkey might have already arrived in neighboring countries, urging authorities in those countries to step up efforts to detect possible outbreaks.
The team will visit Egypt and Iran, and is setting up visits to Syria and Caucasus countries.
As part of efforts to control the outbreak in poultry, Turkey has imposed quarantines, culled 1.1 million fowl and launched campaigns warning people to avoid contact with sick birds.
By culling birds, Turkey hopes to limit contact with humans in this largely rural country, where most villagers raise their own chickens, turkeys and geese. Experts fear the virus could mutate into a form spread easily among humans, triggering a pandemic capable of killing millions. The virus has jumped from poultry to people, killing at least 79 people in east Asia and Turkey since 2003.
The WHO has stressed it has no evidence of person-to-person infection in Turkey. The agency also said it expects the number of new bird flu infections among humans in Turkey to decline.
Most of the cases in Turkey involved children and teenagers between the ages of 4 and 18. On Friday, a team of U.S. government flu experts arrived in Erzurum in eastern Turkey as part of a tour of affected areas to assess what help Washington can provide the country.
“The possible breakout of the pandemic is a global issue and requires a global response,” Ann Derse, who heads the delegation, told reporters. Deputy Prime Minister Abdulatif Sener announced a set of measures to help the poultry industry, which has been hard hit by the crisis, including compensating professional poultry farms who would destroy 14 million old chickens that no longer produce eggs. Producers have said sales have plunged by 70 percent since the outbreak. The US$3 billion (¤2.5 billion) industry employs 100,000 people. Some producers have already begun destroying chicks in their hatchery to reduce stock and avoid bankruptcy.
The government has urged people not to stop eating chicken and eggs from professional poultry farms, saying the disease has been confined to birds raised in the open in people’s gardens.