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Iraq says treating 12 possible human bird flu cases

FluJan 31, 06

Officials in northern Iraq said on Tuesday they were treating 12 patients suspected of having bird flu as a World Health Organisation (WHO) team prepared to travel to the area to give urgent assistance.

Iraq’s health minister said on Monday the country fears it had its first human bird flu victim after preliminary test results showed a 14-year-old Iraqi girl who died two weeks ago had the H5N1 virus.

WHO said it is urgently seeking further tests at a British laboratory to confirm the diagnosis and is dispatching a team of experts to help health officials in Iraq’s largely autonomous northern region of Kurdistan.

The British laboratory will also assess samples from the girl’s uncle, who had cared for her when she was ill and who himself died last week of a respiratory infection.

“We have 12 patients in Sulaimaniya that have lung infections that we suspect may be the bird flu virus,” Kurdistan’s deputy prime minister, Imad Ahmed, told Reuters, referring to one of the region’s largest cities.

The most serious was 54-year-old Mariam Qader, who came from the same village as the dead girl and is believed to be a distant relative of the victim.

The village is close to Iraq’s border with Turkey, where four children died from bird flu in recent weeks.

“Until now we have culled more than 400,000 birds,” Kurdistan’s health minister, Mohammed Khashnow, told Reuters, adding that teams are concentrating on a swathe of territory between Sulaimaniya and the Turkish border to the north.

“We gather the birds, put them in plastic bags and suffocate them and then bury them,” he said. Poisoning with carbon dioxide is the generally approved method for culling large numbers of poultry.

The WHO team, composed of four experts in epidemiology and infection control, will leave on Wednesday for Jordan and should reach northern Iraq by the end of the week, WHO spokesman Dick Thompson told Reuters.

“The purpose of the mission is to assess the situation on the ground. Experts from the (U.N.) Food and Agriculture Organisation may also be joining the team,” he added.


So far there have been no confirmed cases among poultry in Iraq, but local officials say the country’s porous frontiers, a raging insurgency and general chaos in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion will make it hard to control any epidemic.

The virulent virus has killed at least 85 people since late 2003, mainly in five countries of Asia where the virus emerged.

Initially, the Geneva-based WHO had discounted bird flu as the cause of the death of the Iraqi girl, Tijan Abdel-Qader, but a WHO official said on Monday that preliminary results from a U.S. Navy laboratory in Cairo showed the H5N1 virus.

“We don’t have positive confirmation of H5N1 in the girl yet. The laboratory samples should have reached the UK this morning,” Thompson said.

The girl had a history of exposure to diseased birds, the WHO said on its Web site.

Scientists say the H5N1 virus is mutating steadily and may eventually acquire the changes it needs to be easily transmitted from human to human. Because people lack any immunity to it, it could sweep the world in weeks or months, killing millions.

The WHO said Iraq was the seventh country to report human H5N1 infection in the current outbreak. The first human case occurred in Vietnam in December 2003.

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