Genetic samples showed similarities between human and animal cases, suggesting that victims appear to contract the disease from infected domestic birds and not from each other. The cases in Turkey mark the first human cases outside East Asia, and health experts are concerned that if the virus mutates to be easily transmittable from human to human, it will spark a global pandemic that could kill millions.
In China, meanwhile, WHO officials confirmed the death of the fifth human from bird flu of eight human cases. An initial investigation by the WHO identified the source of the virus as poultry in the family flock that recently died, though no poultry outbreaks have been reported in the area.
The announcement puts the WHO’s official human death toll from bird flu at 78, over half of the 147 confirmed cases.
And in Japan, health officials suspect that 77 people, most of them chicken farm workers, are infected with a mild form of the bird flu.
Turkish officials said Tuesday that none of the latest victims was in a life-threatening condition, and Guenael Rodier, the leader of a WHO team sent to investigate the cases in Turkey, said the situation “can be brought under control relatively easily.”
Health Minister Recep Akdag said Turkey can slow the progress of the disease by taking the necessary measures but because Turkey lies on the path of migratory birds, the country would continue to be at risk in years to come. Authorities have sealed off areas around major cities of Ankara and Istanbul while they cull poultry. Akdag also urged people to abandon raising poultry in backyards.
The WHO has confirmed four cases but is treating the 11 additional cases as “preliminary positive,” according to WHO spokeswoman Christine McNab. Samples will be sent to London for further testing.
Following the outbreaks in Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his government to take measures to prevent a new outbreak of bird flu. Russia has not reported any human cases but the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization lists 33 avian outbreaks.
Officials in Germany, Greece, Georgia and Bulgaria have increased customs checks on travelers from Turkey and have put veterinarians and border officials on high alert.