updated 3/22/2006 1:28:39 PM ET 2006-03-22T18:28:39

The village at the center of Azerbaijan’s human bird flu outbreak is so gripped by fear that local people refused to attend the victims’ funerals for fear of getting ill, a villager said on Tuesday.

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Four of the five victims of bird flu in Azerbaijan were from the village of Daikend in the Salyan region of southern Azerbaijan. Two young women and a boy were members of the same extended family. A third girl was a family friend.

“No one went to the funerals of those girls,” said Ilham Salamov, who lives in Daikend and had come into the regional capital Salyan, about 13 miles away.

“Everyone is afraid. There is panic in the village. Everyone is scared about bird flu.”

Missing a neighbor's funeral is considered deeply shameful in rural Azerbaijan, where traditional Muslim values hold strong.

“I am afraid my children will also get ill and I am afraid to let them go to school. I have forbidden them from going near the Askerov family (to which three of the victims belonged),” said Salamov.

Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) said the outbreak seems to have stabilized in Azerbaijan — a mainly Muslim republic that borders Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Government officials appear on television nightly telling people the virus is picked up only through contact with infected birds and -- so far at least -- cannot pass from human to human.

On a road leading into Salyan, public health workers wearing protective masks, suits and boots were stopping cars and spraying their tyres with disinfectant.

But near to the epicenter of the outbreak, some people do not trust the official assurances. Rumors spread quickly through the close-knit communities.

“Last week one of my acquaintances was ill and it was bird flu, although the doctors said it wasn’t,” said Haydar, a 71-year-old man from Salyan.

“I am sure there are a lot of people sick with bird flu but the authorities are hiding it.”

Azeri government officials have urged citizens to stay calm and assured them there is no danger from eating properly cooked poultry or eggs.

“All the relevant state authorities are working overtime and there is no panic in the country,” said Health Ministry spokeswoman Samaya Mamedova.

A saleswoman at one supermarket in the capital, Baku, said sales of poultry were down since the outbreak. Traders in three Baku markets said they had been banned from selling live chickens.

“We have stopped eating eggs or chicken because of the bird flu,” said Sanubar Allahverdiyeva, a Baku resident.

“We went to visit my mother in her village but we did not call in on any of our other relatives there because they all keep chickens at their homes,” she said.


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