Iraqi and U.N. health officials said Monday a 15-year-old girl who died this month was a victim of the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, the first confirmed case of the disease in the Middle East.
Tests were under way to determine if the girl’s 50-year-old uncle, who lived in the same house, also died of the virus. Shangen Abdul Qader died Jan. 17, just 10 days before her uncle, Hamasour Mustapha, who died of symptoms similar to bird flu, Iraqi health officials said.
Iraqi health authorities began killing domestic birds in northern Iraq, which borders Turkey, where at least 21 cases of the deadly virus have been detected. Turkey and Iraq also lie on a migratory path for numerous species of birds.
“We regretfully announce that the first case of bird flu has appeared in Iraq,” Iraqi Health Minister Abdel Mutalib Mohammed said in the Kurdistan city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Mohammed made the announcement after receiving results from the U.S. Navy Medical Research Unit laboratory in Egypt that conducted tests on the girl.
“The results show the inflection with the deadly H5N1,” he said. “We appeal to the World Health Organization to help us.”
Abdul Qader died after contracting a lung infection in her village of Raniya, about 60 miles south of the Turkish border and just 15 miles west of Iran.
The girl’s mother rejected the bird flu results, but acknowledged that a number of her chickens had mysteriously died.
“My daughter did not die from bird flu,” Fatima Abdullah, 50, told The Associated Press. “She did not like chickens nor had anything to do with them. She did not take care of these birds.”
The prospect of a bird flu outbreak in Iraq is especially alarming because it is gripped by armed insurgency and lacks the resources of other governments in the region. Government institutions, however, are most effective in the Kurdish-run area of the north where the girl lived.
Health experts also said controlling such an outbreak and killing birds en masse would be difficult due to Iraq’s limited veterinary and monitoring infrastructure.
“If an outbreak of avian influenza were to be proven, there would be a lot of support needed,” said Maria Zampaglione, spokeswoman at the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health.
Dick Thompson, a WHO spokesman, said preliminary laboratory results showed the girl did have the H5N1 strain, but that test samples are being flown to a WHO laboratory in the United Kingdom for final confirmation.
“It is always worrying to have a new case in a new country because it raises concerns among the public,” Thompson said. “But we have to understand that this is just one case.”
WHO is responding to Iraqi calls for help by putting together a crisis team to send to northern Iraq to conduct tests on the areas where the virus was found as well as people in hospitals exhibiting bird flu symptoms.
Kurdistan Health Ministry official Najimuldin Hassan said 14 people have recently been admitted to hospitals exhibiting bird flu symptoms, but just two remain in Sulaimaniyah Teaching Hospital suspected of possibly having the disease.
It could take up to three weeks to find out how the virus entered Iraq and how it will be contained, Thompson said, adding that the security situation would not prevent doctors from going to help.
“We need to identify what the source of this child’s exposure was and to conduct epidemiological tests in the field,” Thompson said. “It has to be in environment somewhere and we need to identify that before going ahead in assessing control or (bird) elimination efforts,” the WHO official said.
A U.N. official in Egypt, who refused to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said 30 other samples from northern Iraq are being tested.
'Campaign to kill birds'
Kurdistan’s health minister said authorities started killing domestic birds in the village where the girl lived and nearby areas.
“Today we started a campaign to kill birds in three towns — Raniya, Dukan and Qaladaza. We formed committees to do so,” said Mohammed Khoshnow.
Hassan said thousands of domesticated birds are expected to be killed, but authorities were not equipped to kill migratory birds.
“We do not know how” to kill them, he said.
Rod Kennard, who manages the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s assistance program for Iraq, said a mass cull would be a challenge because Iraq lacks the money to get farmers to willingly give up their flocks.
Iraq has some 550 commercial flocks, he said. The sale of birds at open markets, especially in small towns, poses another challenge.
“The problem comes down to funding more than anything else,” Kennard said from Amman, Jordan. “If they have enough money in order to pay people off so that people will not be reluctant to cull their birds, it’s less of an issue.”