Avian Flu Confirmed in Northern Iraq

The World Health Organization confirms an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of flu in northern Iraq. It says preliminary tests indicate a young Kurdish girl died of bird flu earlier in January. One of her relatives also died, but it's not yet clear whether he also contracted the disease.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Iraq has a new worry today. The World Health Organization reports that preliminary tests show a 15-year old Iraqi-Kurdish girl died of bird flu nearly two weeks ago. The H5N1 strain of bird flu has already killed four people in neighboring Turkey.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in the Kurdish city of Sulamania, in northern Iraq, and he joins us now. Ivan, could you tell us more about this girl's diagnosis?

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Well, the girl, as you said, died nearly two weeks ago, but the initial tests that were performed in Baghdad showed that she tested negative for H5N1 bird flu virus. But the officials here in Sulamania didn't trust the results. They said there were sick birds in her house and especially they became alarmed after the girl's uncle died last Friday with similar symptoms, with respiratory problems.

They called for more tests and these results have come in from a U.S. Navy lab in Cairo. The World Health Organization, the WHO, says it is a preliminary positive that has to be confirmed at another lab in Britain. At the same time, a WHO spokeswoman that I spoke with, she said it was not surprising to see what she called isolated cases of H5N1 in humans in Iraq.

NORRIS: So we're talking about cases of bird flu in a country that's now in the midst of war. I imagine Iraq is not really prepared to deal with this kind of outbreak.

WATSON: No, the government here is battling an insurgency with the help of the U.S., many Iraqis say this country is in the early stages of a civil war and the government is barely able to provide simple services. Just a few hours of electricity a day, there are fuel shortages, so battling bird flu is probably the last thing it needs.

If there's a bright side to this, Michele, it's that bird flu is detected in the safest, perhaps best-organized part of Iraq: in the Kurdistan region, where there is an administration in place. On Friday, the doctors here called for international help. They said they only had 20 capsules of Tamiflu in stock to treat patients with, now they have gotten some help from the national government since then and the UN has promised to contribute here.

NORRIS: Ivan, how are Iraqis reacting to this?

WATSON: People are alarmed here. There is some concern. They're not educated about this disease. People are asking should we eat chicken or not? My translator called up really late last night with a cold and he was convinced it was bird flu. I had to tell him it was not the case.

The administration here is running information on local television trying to inform people. They have also begun killing poultry up in the mountains in the border areas and the health minister has come up from Baghdad with teams to help train medical workers to help deal with this. They're bringing up more Tamiflu and some more protective suits for the process of killing poultry in the area.

NORRIS: What do we know about the H5N1 strain of bird flu found in Turkey and now apparently in Iraq?

WATSON: Well, in the outbreak there, the World Health Organization said it was passed from birds to humans only when humans came in close contact with those sick birds. So it is quite difficult to transmit. The death toll there was minimal. Four people confirmed dead from bird flu in Turkey. The fear though is that the more this virus spreads, the more risk there is that it could mutate and become transferable from person to person. That would make it much, much more contagious, Michele, and health officials warn that could trigger a flu epidemic.

NORRIS: And, what will this mean for the U.S. military presence in northern Iraq, particularly in and around Kurdistan?

WATSON: There is a minimal military presence from the U.S. here in the Kurdistan region. They're much busier further south battling an insurgency and they've left this region up here largely to the Kurds. I do imagine that the U.S. could offer some assistance however, perhaps in the form of medicine or some doctors or some training.

NORRIS: Thank you, Ivan.

WATSON: You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: Ivan Watson speaking to us from the Kurdish city of Sulamania.

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