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Press Centre (1/2007)

2007/01/22 - Bird flu devastates a family in eastern Turkey

Van, Turkey, 18 January 2007 -- In the shadow of Mount Ararat, a father in eastern Turkey is trying to recover from the death of his 16-year-old daughter, Fatma. A year after Fatma died from avian influenza, Mehmet Emin Özcan is still dazed and refuses to believe the doctors who suggest that she became ill after handling an infected duck in the family's kitchen.

Thomas Nybo

Mehmet Emin Özcan
Mr Mehmet Emin Özcan’s 16-year-old daughter Fatma was one of four Turkish children
who died from avian flu at the beginning of 2006.
Screenshot © UNICEF Video 2007

Health experts believe the bird flu virus is infecting high numbers of children like Fatma because they are often the ones responsible for feeding domestic poultry, as well as cleaning the pens and gathering eggs. Smaller children also put themselves at risk when they treat the birds as pets.

Sudden loss

Mr. Özcan is only 45 years old, but the wrinkles around his eyes run deep. His face tells the story of a tough life spent outdoors in an unforgiving environment. His first wife died in a hospital -- the same hospital to which doctors wanted to send Fatma -- and their explanations offer him no solace for the loss of the child he considered his favourite.

Fatma’s death came all of a sudden and I have no explanation how she became ill, says Mr. Özcan.

It was God’s decision. I thought, Fatma is my child that I love the most! But God decided to take her away from me.

The only photos he has of Fatma are the ones from the newspapers, taken a few days before she died.

Mr. Özcan has five other children. One of them, Muhammet, 5, also contracted avian influenza. He survived only after spending 17 days on a ventilator.

Muhammet was also ill, but he did not die, Mr. Özcan says, looking down at Muhammet, who sits next to the heater in their living room. So God gave his life back to us.

Muhammet Özcan

Muhammet, 5, also contracted avian influenza but he survived after spending 17 days
on a ventilator. Screenshot © UNICEF Video 2007

Prevention messages

Because of Turkey’s proximity to Asia, Europe and Africa, migrating birds regularly travel through the country. Infected birds are believed to have passed the virus to domesticated flocks, mostly raised by poor communities. Doctors note that all four children who died here in 2006 had been in close contact with home-raised ducks and chickens.

After the outbreak hit last year, millions of chickens and other birds were slaughtered in affected countries, including Turkey.

UNICEF has been working closely with the Government of Turkey to educate people, especially those who raise birds at home, about proper hygiene and protection. UNICEF incorporated six messages into six different public service announcements that were distributed to local and national television stations.

Local religious leaders were also encouraged to incorporate the messages into their sermons.

Within these messages, we are really focusing on prevention, said UNICEF Communication Officer Sema Hosta.

You have to keep your children away from the chickens and all the winged animals and wash your hands with soap and water. We have to provide the correct information about prevention at the correct time and with special attention to the children themselves.

Averting a global pandemic

Other measures have been taken as well. The government is setting up a lab in eastern Turkey to quickly diagnose any new cases in the region, using the same testing equipment that is found in top laboratories around the world. The government is also trying to limit the exposure of domesticated fowl to wild birds. One strategy involves constructing large poultry farms that are hermetically sealed from the outside world. Such a farm outside of Ankara houses more than 100,000 chickens, yet requires only six people to maintain.

A poultry farm near Ankara
Worldwide concern about a potential pandemic of avian influenza or bird flu grew when
the H5N1 virus finally reached Turkey and the borders of neighbouring Europe in
October 2005. Screenshot © UNICEF Video 2007

Despite all of these advancements, though, serious threats remain. New human cases of avian influenza in Asia have already appeared in 2007, and health experts warn that if the virus mutates into a human strain, it could trigger a global pandemic that could kill millions.

Unlike the plentiful vaccines for seasonal influenza, any vaccines effective against a pandemic virus are not ready for commercial production, and would likely take months to become widely available after the start of a pandemic.

Six steps to avoid bird flu

Six steps to avoid bird flu!
© UNICEF Turkey 2006

This poster was produced by UNICEF, the MOH and other partners to promote the six easy steps that children and their families should take to protect themselves from bird flu. Print-optimised versions are available for download in the following standard formats [PDF 1.9MB approx.]:

The artwork is supplied free for the promotion of this important public health issue provided that it is not used in any way other than for its intended purpose.

For more information

Angela Hawke, UNICEF CEE/CIS, Tel: +41 (0)22 909 5433

Sema Hosta, Communications Officer, UNICEF Turkey, Tel: +90 (0)312 454 1010

Canan Sargın, Health Programme Officer, UNICEF Turkey, Tel: +90 (0)312 454 1006

Find out more about avian influenza or bird flu from the WHO international web site.

UNICEF Turkey Country Office, Yukarı Dikmen Mah. Alexsander Dubçek Cd. 7/106, 06450 Çankaya/Ankara. Telephone: +90 312 454 1000 Fax: +90 312 496 1461 E-mail: ankara@unicef.org