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Turkey works to improve response time
Suspected bird flu samples overwhelmed labs
Ankara, Turkey – The speed at which bird flu spread through backyard poultry farms earlier this year so alarmed health authorities that Dr Musa Arik, Head of Animal Health Services in the General Directorate of Protection and Control, is now calling for an emergency fund to be set up with international help to tackle any future outbreaks of the disease. He is also advocating that Turkish laboratories be internationally certified to diagnose the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus in bird samples in order to speed up response time.

The last case of bird flu in Turkey was on 30 March 2006. Veterinarians are hopeful that the disease may be under control even as they continue surveillance of domestic and wild birds and encourage backyard farmers in more than 40 000 Turkish villages to improve hygiene and control access to their poultry coops.

Lessons to learn

FAO feels that Turkey's experience with bird flu holds lessons for countries that are currently free of the disease but which are preparing for its possible arrival.

As a country at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa, Turkish authorities wonder what part migratory birds played in introducing the disease: “The role of wild birds in spreading avian influenza is still not clear, but we know that human activity plays a very important role in spreading the disease and this is activity we can do something about,” says Dr Huseyin Sungur, Director General, Directorate of Protection and Control, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

When bird flu was confirmed in Turkey, authorities moved against high-risk areas and activities, shutting poultry markets and controlling the movement of birds.

However, Dr Arik explains that the country’s response to bird flu was not without some unexpected difficulties. “At first sending specimens to the laboratories worked well, but later many freight companies refused to carry the specimens and this became really critical over the long Biram holiday, slowing efforts to identify the disease in a number of areas.”

Many of the laboratories were overwhelmed with samples from dead birds, according to Dr Arik. “This is why I would like to see more reference labs certified to diagnose the disease, especially some of the local labs here in Turkey.”

Compensation was another problem, he says. “Because we don’t have any emergency fund for bird flu, the governorates tried to get funding wherever they could to compensate people for the birds that we had to cull during outbreaks of the disease. As a result, we know that compensation was somewhat uneven and we don’t know the real cost of fighting bird flu.”

Impact on village life

In Bala, a town near Ankara, 90 percent of local people keep between three and five chickens, ducks or turkeys in their backyards. One bleak day in February 2006, after two chickens from the town were diagnosed with bird flu, authorities came and culled 1 229 chickens, 75 turkeys, 65 geese, 19 ducks and 16 pigeons.

Ayter Oztalp, who lost her birds, says, “Since my husband is a retired civil servant, we are still okay. The chickens were never a primary source of income. I just used the money to help with household expenses. You know, a little here, a little there.”

However, in the nearby village of Ahmetçayri, another outbreak claimed 360 chickens and 66 turkeys in a culling that set the women, who owned the poultry, against their husbands and brothers, who had called health authorities.

Village chief Necdet Polay explains: “When we heard that two of the chickens at Adna Okçu’s house had died we immediately called the animal health authorities because we knew the dangers of bird flu from watching television. When the birds tested positive for H5N1, authorities collected all the poultry in the village and killed them.”

Mr Polay adds, “Our women were really angry with us for calling authorities. I even had to leave the village for a couple of weeks until things blew over.”

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UN partners hone art of grassroots communication

Ankara, Turkey – When bird flu first broke out, FAO and UNICEF swung into action honing messages designed to save the lives of lower-income women and children, the people most likely to be raising poultry at home. FAO provided specialized knowledge about bird flu, while UNICEF contributed years of communication expertise gained through its grassroots programmes to improve children's health and education.

Promoting life-saving behaviour is not as simple as broadcasting a message or handing out a brochure. It is important that authorities have a unified message and know how to deliver that message to the people who most need it. Different styles and channels of communication may be needed to reach people in distant places, and those with different social and cultural backgrounds. Too many messages can result in confusion.

According to Sema Hosta, UNICEF’s communication officer, “The only medium to reach all Turkish families is television. Often children will relay the messages they see on television to their parents who may not be watching. Some adults in remote areas of the country may not even understand Turkish all that well and in that case reaching them through their children becomes even more crucial.”

The communication programme works with government ministries on Turkey’s Child Intersectoral Board, other relevant government ministries, the national broadcaster, the Turkish Red Crescent and non-governmental organizations.

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Turkey works to improve response time
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