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Avian Flu Confirmed in Turkish Birds

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Health officials say they have found avian flu in fowl in Turkey. It's the virus's first confirmed appearance in a European country and a further indication that this disease is spreading around the world. Avian flu does not move easily from birds to humans, but it can occasionally spread to people who raise the animals. It's claimed 60 lives in Asia over the past two years. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

Last week a flock of domestic birds in Turkey came down with symptoms of avian flu. The local authorities ended up killing more than 7,000 turkeys and chickens and creating a quarantine zone a few miles wide around the affected farms. Experts in England examined tissue samples from the sick birds. Marcos Kipriyanu, the European Union's health commissioner, announced the results of those tests at a news conference today.

Mr. MARCOS KIPRIYANU (Health Commissioner, European Union): We have received now confirmation that the virus found in Turkey is an avian flu, H5N1 high pathogenic virus.

HARRIS: The H5N1 virus spreads easily among birds and is often fatal, so this is a threat to the poultry industry, but it's also a concern for human health. Officials worry that this virus could eventually mutate so it can spread easily from person to person, and that could lead to a serious flu outbreak, a pandemic. Kipriyanu said officials are bracing for that possibility.

Mr. KIPRIYANU: We are preparing in a generic way in the European Union so--for a possible influenza pandemic because it could come from mutation of the avian flu virus, but it could also come from the mutation of any other influenza virus. So we need to have a generic plan for preparedness and these plans now are in place and will be tested soon in a command post exercise, a military type exercise.

HARRIS: He recommended that Europeans get vaccinated against the routine flu. There is no vaccine available for the bird flu, but European nations are also stockpiling anti-viral drugs that can treat H5N1 influenza in people.

The latest outbreak of the strain of bird flu started in Korea in 2003. It has gradually spread through Asia and was found earlier this year in Mongolia and Russia. Health officials say it can be picked up and spread by wild migratory waterfowl, so it's no surprise that it's gradually been spreading west. Health officials in Romania say they have identified bird flu there as well, but it has not yet been proven to be the H5N1 strain. As a precaution, the European Union has banned imports of poultry from Romania as well as from Turkey. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Harris
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.