The number of suspected bird flu cases in humans reached at least 32 in Turkey yesterday, while the UN health agency confirmed at least two patients -- a brother and sister who died -- tested positive for bird flu.
A British laboratory has found that the two teenagers who died earlier this week had bird flu and WHO spokeswoman Christine McNab in Geneva said scientists were closing in on identifying the virus as the deadly H5N1 strain.
"If it's confirmed, these would be the first human cases outside China and Southeast Asia," McNab said on Friday.
The strain has already killed more than 70 people in East Asia since 2003. Authorities are closely monitoring H5N1 for fear it could mutate into a form easily passed among humans and spark a pandemic.
Health Minister Recep Akdag, who was to travel to Van with a six-member delegation from WHO later yesterday, said authorities did not believe the disease had passed from human to human.
"There is no suspicion, for the time being," he said.
Birds in Turkey, Romania, Russia and Croatia have recently tested positive for H5N1.
An 11-year-old girl died on Friday of suspected bird flu in eastern Turkey -- days after her teenage brother and sister succumbed to the disease -- and their doctor said they probably contracted the illness by playing with dead chickens.
The British lab also confirmed that another child, Yusuf Tunc, tested positive for bird flu, a Turkish health ministry official said. It was unclear whether Tunc, hospitalized in the eastern city of Van, had any connection to the dead teenagers. He was reported to be in serious condition.
Separately, the Health Ministry announced late on Friday that yet another patient, who was hospitalized in Van, tested positive for bird flu according to preliminary tests carried out at a Turkish lab in Istanbul.
Apart from Tunc, 19 other people were hospitalized in Van with flu-like symptoms. Authorities said tests were still under way to determine whether any of them had contracted bird flu. Five other people also with flu-like symptoms were hospitalized in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, officials said.
The Anatolia news agency said early yesterday a seven-member family, who traveled from eastern Turkey to the western town of Yalova, were admitted to a hospital in Istanbul with similar symptoms. The family, including five children, said they fell ill after eating a sickened chicken a few days ago in the east of the country.
Health minister Akdag said none of the cases outside of Van appeared to be "probable" or "strongly probable" bird flu cases, but said he expected more people with flu symptoms would rush to hospitals in panic.
"This is natural. We expect more suspicious cases to come because of the sensitivity [the deaths] have caused," he said.
In the village of Dagdelen, on the outskirts of Dogubayazit -- the hometown of the children who succumbed to bird flu -- villagers gathered outside an Agriculture Ministry building to complain that no one had come to cull their fowl.
"We have sick chickens, we can't touch them," village administrator Hasan Celik said.