ISTANBUL, Turkey — In Turkey, the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus has so far killed three children and infected a total of 18 — all of whom had close contact to sick chickens. Authorities are working to stem the tide of infections, but a lack of manpower and local awareness of the dangers of the virus have caused problems.
NBC News correspondent Ned Colt reports from Istanbul on how people are coping with the outbreak of the deadly virus. Colt, who was in Hong Kong for eight years from 1997-2005 as main Asia correspondent for NBC News, compares the difference between the coordinated efforts to stop a larger outbreak there with those in Turkey.
Are people panicking in Turkey about bird flu as the number of people infected by the deadly H5N1 strain continues to climb?
There are great worries about panic, but we’re really not seeing it here. That said, I haven’t been to the east towards Ankara where most of the bird flu cases have occurred. We are in Istanbul where people have been going to the hospital to be checked when they have flu-like symptoms, but nobody here has come down with the H5 virus.
The government is doing a lot in terms of publicizing the need for good hygiene. There are public service announcements on television and print ads. There are signs up on the streets in Istanbul warning that certain districts have been quarantined due to outbreaks of bird flu.
It is a little disconcerting for people when they see the proverbial men in white suits traveling around with bags into which they thrust the birds and as they demand birds from people who don’t quite understand the dangers that an infected bird could present.
It is unclear how many of the birds are infected, but the approach is to get rid of any that are in close contact with humans, so all of them — ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys — are being picked up anywhere that any birds are testing positive for bird flu.
Are they culling the birds in Istanbul?
They are culling them here, we went out with one of the teams. I have to say that it is not as coordinated an effort as I’ve seen in other parts of the world. I’m referring specifically to East Asia and Southeast Asia where everything was done, by and large, on a much more massive and coordinated scale.
Here, there is clearly a shortage of personnel. The government is admitting this, the World Health Organization (WHO) is saying that there needs to be a broader approach to the culling and to ensure that everyone gives up their birds.
That is a big problem. The birds are valuable and people are not being paid for them as their birds are picked up. They are supposed to be getting some money — but apparently not the real value of them — at a later date. So, many people are hiding their birds and that is also proving to be a real issue.
For people who are turning in their birds, we’ve heard stories of children carrying the birds with their bare hands, but wearing masks. But, that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to get bird flu. They are clearly unaware of the best way to avoid contracting the virus.
When you were in Southeast Asia would they be paying cash on sight for the birds that were turned in?
In some countries they would pay cash on sight. In other countries people were just so aware of the dangers of bird flu, and also the government would threaten them if they didn’t turn over the birds. In most countries that I visited — Thailand, Mainland China, and Hong Kong — there was just never any question of the importance of turning over the poultry.
Here, I think there is still sort of a lack of awareness of the danger that bird flu poses.
How are officials dealing with criticism that they haven’t acted quickly enough to contain the outbreak?
Well, they are saying that they are doing the best they can. I think there has been some acknowledgement that this has come as something of a surprise.
This is a developing country and they may not have all of the resources that they need to fight it. That’s one reason why some of the new World Bank funding that is being asked for will probably be coming to Turkey to help study the strain of the bird flu that is here and to ensure that they can cull as many birds as need to be culled.
That is one of the main complaints that we keep hearing over and over again — that there aren’t enough teams out there and that it's not coordinated enough — so they miss areas.
We spent an entire day, about three days ago, trying to find a team that was out culling birds in a district of Istanbul. But, nobody from the Health Ministry knew where they were, or how to contact them.
Then once they were found, it was a fairly small group, and they were not necessarily covering entire areas. There was some question of whether they had missed certain areas and that sort of thing. So, clearly a lot needs to be done here in terms of coordination here.
What other precautions, other than culling the birds are Turkish officials taking? Are there any other visible signs like checkpoints at borders?
They are being much more careful at borders. A lot of the neighboring countries here are already enacting more stringent border checks. Making sure that no one is bringing in birds and that no one has any symptoms of the flu when they cross the border into the country.
In the country, there are public service announcements on television and the radio. Just a few days ago, we encountered a television crew that was gassing birds on live TV to underscore the need for what has to be done here.
So, there is an awareness of the problem and the government is trying to get the word out.
But, you are dealing with a huge country — both geographically, and in terms of the population. This is going to take some time. This is something that is relatively new here. In Asia, people are accustomed to it — it had been around for about 10 years — so there is a much better awareness of it there.
There are people who have maybe three or four chickens, and when one day they all die, they dispose of them by carrying them, burying them and, in some cases, perhaps even eating them. There is a real lack of awareness of the necessity for disposing of the birds in a very hygienic and cautious fashion.
How are ordinary people taking their own precautions?
Here in Istanbul, one example of the awareness of the threat is that chicken, which has never been as popular as lamb or beef in this country, is much less popular than it was just a few weeks ago.
If you go to a butcher shop, they’ll tell you that they have dropped their prices by 70 percent, but even so, their sales are down 70 percent.
You go to have the famous “döner kebab” that you see in the window rotisserie and there used to be chicken döner in the window. But now it is all lamb. So, there are clearly signs that people are not eating chicken here.
The government here in Istanbul has outlawed the sale of chickens in open areas. But, we still saw chickens for sale in open areas just a few days ago. So, there is also the issue of enforcement of these new laws.
Are there fears that this latest outbreak could threaten Turkey’s EU membership?
On the broader scale, I don’t think that other nations in the EU are faulting Turkey for having bird flu arrive here. But, I think that inside Turkey, there is very much a belief that whatever they do is being watched by other members of the EU.
It is not just the actual bird flu, but they want to make it look as though they are as coordinated as any other European nation — like France or Germany — would be in their response to a potential catastrophe like this.
What about the tourism industry?
There are great concerns about the impact of this on the tourism industry, which brings in about five percent of the gross national product in Turkey. There are some 21 million tourists who come here every year and tourism companies are already saying that they are seeing a drop in the number of visitors here.
This is the first time that we are seeing infections and death in humans as a result of bird flu outside of Southeast Asia. Some neighboring countries, including Russia, have already warned their tourists not to travel to Turkey, and that’s going to have a very negative effect on the economy here.