Sat, Jan 14, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Turkey government attacked over bird flu provisions

CRITICISM Ministers defended themselves against accusations of laxness from the mayor of a town where three children have already lost their lives to the disease

AP , DOGUBAYAZIT, TURKEY

Local officials have accused Turkey's government of moving too slowly to combat bird flu when it was still confined to fowl, as the number of people infected with the deadly H5N1 strain climbed to 18.

Mukkades Kubilay, the mayor of Dogubayazit -- where three siblings died a week ago -- complained that Ankara had sent only three doctors to help, and that there were not enough workers to help destroy chickens, ducks and geese as a precaution.

"It's an extraordinary situation," she said on Thursday.

"There aren't enough workers. We don't have enough technical people ... We're trying to do it on our own." she added.

National health and agriculture authorities denied they had done too little, too late, to contain the outbreak, which was first discovered in poultry in December and swiftly spread to people.

"Whoever says that we've responded too slowly has ill intentions," Health Ministry spokeswoman Mine Tuncel said. Turkey's agriculture minister, Mehdi Eker, insisted there was no delay in responding to the first reports of infected birds on Dec. 15, and said culling of poultry began immediately.

"The fight against this disease had been pursued through a clear and transparent policy," he said.

Questions about whether the government acted swiftly and aggressively enough early in the outbreak lingered on Thursday as officials raced to contain the disease, which Eker said had been confirmed in 11 of Turkey's 81 provinces and was suspected in 14 others.

Health authorities raised the number of people infected with H5N1 from 15 to 18, after it turned up in preliminary tests on two people hospitalized in southeastern Turkey and in a lung of an 11-year-old girl who died last week in the same region. The girl was the sister of two teenagers who became the first fatalities outside East Asia, where the deadly strain has killed 76 people since 2003.

Although three of the 18 people confirmed with the virus have died, several others are in a stable condition or show few signs of illness, suggesting that the virus may not be as deadly as earlier believed. Previously, more than half of those confirmed to have contracted the disease died.

Eight-year-old Sumeyya Mamuk, who became infected with bird flu after comforting, hugging and kissing dying chickens, was released from a hospital in the eastern city of Van on Thursday and returned to her family. Her doctors said she was in good condition.

Health Minister Recep Akdag said he believed Turkey soon would overcome the outbreak. The WHO has stressed that so far, there have been no cases involving person-to-person infection.

"The EU and the world will see Turkey put its signature on a great success," Akdag said.

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