Thu, Jan 12, 2006 - Page 6 News List

From affection to affliction


Sumeyya Mamuk's backyard chickens were her beloved pets. She fed them, petted them and took care of them. When they started to get sick and die, she hugged them and kissed them goodbye.

The next morning, the eight-year-old's face and eyes had swollen and she was suffering from a high fever. Her father took her to a hospital and five days later she was confirmed to have been infected with the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.

"The chickens were sick. One had puffed up and she touched it. We told her not to. She loved chickens a lot," said her father, Abdulkerim Mamuk. "She held them in her arms."

Her oldest brother, Sadun, said Sumeyya, the second-youngest of eight children, loved animals and was known for taking care of puppies and kittens from the neighborhood.

When her chickens started to die of bird flu, some of them puffed up, with their stomachs and intestines apparently dripping out of their mouths and what appeared to be blood oozing from their eyes, Sumeyya's family said. When their mother saw Sumeyya holding one of them, she yelled at her and hit the girl to get her away.

Sumeyya began to cry. She wiped her tears with the hand she'd been using to comfort the dying chicken.

"She wiped her face," her father said. "She started to swell. She had a really high fever."

He spoke from inside his clean, bright, carpet-covered home in the Yalim Erez neighborhood of Van. He wore a leather jacket, a typical Kurdish headdress and spoke broken Turkish.

Following a few tense days when her family worried if she would recover, Sumeyya's condition has improved due to quick treatment with the antiviral drug Tamiflu, chief physician Huseyin Avni Sahin at the Van 100th Year Hospital said on Tuesday.

But at least two other children have died of the same virus in Turkey, and as of Tuesday, 15 people had tested positive for infection in preliminary tests. Many of those are children.

The disease also appears to be spreading.

In parts of the world where the virus has been deadly -- until now only in East Asia -- children like Sumeyya have been the worst hit.

"It was the same in Asia," said Guenael Rodier, a scientist with the World Health Organization who has been chasing the virus around the world. "It mainly occurred in family clusters of small size, and mainly in children."

Even if not animal lovers like Sumeyya, children in poor agricultural towns tend to be extremely comfortable with the animals they share their lives with. It has been particularly difficult to convince them that this can now be dangerous.

In Dogubayazit, the Turkish town near the Iranian border where most of the current cases originated, children usually outnumbered workers in trying to round up chickens for culling. Boy and girl shepherds led cows and sheep down the main streets. As adult out-of-towners fled from terrifying dogs that snarled from nearly every backyard, little local children giggled and reached down to pick up a stone.

As the H5N1 bird flu virus spreads, scientists monitoring it for fear it could mutate into a form easily transmissible among humans say education on its dangers is crucial to fighting it. The WHO's Rodier said his organization was considering implementing a program aimed solely at rural children.

"It's child behavior," he said. "They play with everything."

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