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First Iraqi Bird Flu Death Confirmed

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January 31, 2006
 
War-torn Iraq has a deadly new enemy to contend with—bird flu.

Iraqi and United Nations health officials confirmed yesterday that a teenage girl who died two weeks ago was a victim of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza.

Fifteen-year-old Shangen Abdul Qader, who died on Jan 17, was the outbreak's first Iraqi victim.

"We regretfully announce that the first case of bird flu has appeared in Iraq," Iraqi Health Minister Abdel Mutalib Mohammed told the Associated Press (AP) in the Kurdistan city of Suleimaniya (also spelled "As Sulaymaniyah") (map of Iraq).

A U.S. Navy medical research unit based in Cairo, Egypt, provided the preliminary laboratory confirmation of the lethal bird-flu strain.

"The results show the infection with the deadly H5N1," Abdel Mutalib Mohammed said. "We appeal to the World Health Organization to help us."

The girl's uncle, Hamasour Mustapha, died ten days after his niece and may have been the nation's second bird-flu victim.

Tests have not yet revealed if avian influenza caused Mustapha's death. The pair lived in the same house and exhibited the same flulike symptoms before their deaths.

Flu Found Near Turkish Border

The infected individuals lived in Raniya, Iraq, a village in that country's Kurdish north some 60 miles (97 kilometers) from the Turkish border.

In recent weeks the virus has spread westward into Turkey from its East Asian source, killing several Turkish children who contracted the disease from infected poultry.

The Turkish Ministry of Health has now identified 21 cases of the H5N1 strain, including four fatalities, in that country.

Qader's mother insisted to AP reporters that her daughter did not die of bird flu, though she reported that several of the family's chickens had died, as had other birds in the area.

"My daughter did not die from bird flu," Fatima Abdullah, 50, told AP. "She did not like chickens nor had anything to do with them. She did not take care of these birds."

So far, human victims of the H5N1 virus appear to have acquired the disease from close contact with infected poultry rather than by transmission from person to person.

Experts warn that if the H5N1 virus, or another strain, mutates into a form that can be easily transferred between people, a global pandemic could be imminent.

Such an outbreak could rival the notorious 1918 "Spanish flu," which may have killed as many as 50 million people around the globe.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that H5N1 has so far infected about 160 people in seven countries, killing at least 85 worldwide since the first bird-human transmission in 2003.

WHO is dispatching a team of experts to northern Iraq to test poultry and about a dozen people who have been hospitalized with bird-flu-like symptoms.

But Iraq's disease-monitoring infrastructure is sorely lacking, and violence and civil unrest could well complicate efforts to monitor and check the spread of disease.

The confirmed cases have so far been limited to Iraq's Kurdish north, which has long enjoyed a measure of autonomy and has been least impacted by the turmoil that grips much of the country.

Iraqi Kurdistan health officials said that domestic officials had begun culling hundreds of thousands of domestic birds in Raniya and other nearby villages in an effort to check the disease.

UN experts warn, however, that widespread culls may be difficult. If the cash-strapped nation is unable to compensate poultry farmers, it seems unlikely that they will consent to the destruction of their cash crop.

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