Turkey said yesterday a third child from the same family had died of bird flu, in a sign that the deadly disease that has already killed scores in Southeast Asia and China has now spread westwards closer to Europe.
The successive deaths triggered accusations that the government had failed to prevent the spread of the virus, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted the authorities had not delayed taking the necessary action.
The latest victim, 11-year-old Hulya Kocyigit, died early yesterday in a hospital in the eastern city of Van after spending several days in intensive care, said Huseyin Avni Sahin, the chief doctor at the hospital.
Her death comes a day after her 15-year-old sister Fatma succumbed to the disease in the same hospital.
Their 14-year-old brother, Muhammet Ali, perished on Sunday, becoming the first known human casualty of bird flu outside Southeast Asia and China, where it has killed more than 70 people since late 2003, nearly 40 of them last year alone.
Sahin said 26 other people, including a fourth member of the Kocyigit family, were being treated in the hospital for bird-flu symptoms.
Three of the patients were in intensive care and one of them was in a "critical condition," he added.
It was not yet clear whether the deaths were caused by the H5N1 strain of bird flu blamed for the other fatalities.
But a spokeswoman in Geneva for the WHO said on Thursday, following the first two deaths, that the strain considered highly dangerous to humans was the likely culprit.
The Kocyigit family is from the impoverished remote eastern town of Dogubeyazit where many families depend on poultry breeding for their livelihoods and live close to their animals, making it harder to contain the spread of the virus.
The Kocyigit children were hospitalized last week after coming into contact with ill chickens that they lived with in the same house.
The family killed and ate the chickens when they fell sick, with press reports claiming that the siblings played with the heads of dead chicken.
Currently humans only contract bird flu if they come into close contact with infected birds, but scientists fear millions around the world could die if the virus crosses with human flu strains to become highly contagious.
Many Dogubeyazit residents thronged the local hospital on yesterday, fearful of having caught bird flu, while others accused authorities of failing to properly inform them on the disease.
"I ate chicken four days ago and I now feel very sick," Ozlem Ates, a teenager about 15 years of age, said in between bouts of vomiting in the corridors of the town's dilapidated looking hospital.
"I fear I have bird flu," she added before being taken away by staff for a check.
The Turkish press ran angry headlines, accusing the government of not acting fast enough to contain the disease.
"Who will account for this?," asked the mass circulation Hurriyet daily on its front page, while the liberal Radikal daily said: "It is spreading."
"The health ministry says there is no delay," Erdogan told reporters in the capital Ankara.
"All the relevant ministries are taking the necessary precautions, " he added.
Dogubeyazit is less then 100km from the town of Aralik, which was quarantined last week after poultry there tested positive for H5 bird flu.
Officials were still awaiting the results of further tests being conducted in London to determine whether any of the thousands of birds slaughtered in the village suffered from the H5N1 strain.