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Blog: Destruction Teams Tackling Bird Flu

January 13, 2006 GMT

As Turkey becomes the latest country to face the outbreak of the deadly bird flu, AP writer Benjamin Harvey is filing these periodic reports from the rural area most affected.

FRIDAY, Jan. 13, 2006

SESLITAS and ARALIK, Turkey _ We’re in Seslitas village, chasing chickens some 12-15 miles (20-25 kilometers) away from Dogubayazit, and an old man with wet and soiled hands is grabbing my arm, telling me he slaughtered seven birds. I tell him I’m a reporter, and point to one of the men from the Agriculture Ministry.

The old man shows us an indistinguishable pile of feathers and bones in a pit, says a dog or a wolf must have eaten them. He says there were seven geese, and he cut them up. He wants to be reimbursed for them. A worker with a pump sprayer hooked up to a liquid case he’s wearing like a backpack back comes over, looks into the pit and sprays down the mess with disinfectant. He tells the man there’s no money for dead birds.

The man grabs my arm again, and pleads with me that there were seven birds there.

``Some villagers get scared and kill their animals on their own,″ another worker says with a shrug. They didn’t know the system, and there’s nothing more he can do.

Later, we go to Aralik on the Armenian border, where the current outbreak is believed to have originated and the poultry population was quickly destroyed, to see how people are getting by without birds. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to care much. A colleague suggested the residents believed that either God would provide or the state would.

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THURSDAY, Jan. 12, 2006

DOGUBAYAZIT, Turkey _ The destruction teams are going way outside of the city now, to the surrounding villages.

At one house, a fight breaks out when one of the residents accuses a worker of stealing a horse. The worker’s protective suit gets torn and covered in his own blood.

He’s sticking his fingers into his mouth to feel if one of his teeth is loose.

Other workers throughout the week could be seen rounding up birds one minute, shoving a cigarette into their mouths with the same hand the next. If these guys don’t get sick we reporters shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

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WEDNESDAY, Jan. 11, 2006

DOGUBAYAZIT, Turkey _ My alarm goes off at 5:40 a.m., but I’m not in shape to be chasing chickens. Ankara orders me to go to a doctor.

I go to the local hospital, which is now relatively empty of patients. I tell them I’m a reporter, I’ve been here for six days, say last night I started to feel sick, tell them my symptoms.

The doctor’s assistant I’m talking to pulls his mask over his face as I’m talking.

Throwing up? Yes. What color? Dark, all liquid, lots _ filled up the toilet, in fact. Blood? I don’t know. Diarrhea too? Yep. And your stomach hurts? Yes. Headache? A little. Fever? Can’t tell. You’re American? Yes. Welcome to Dogubayazit. Thank you.

They draw blood, then bring me back to the lab, where I watch it being tested. Within a few minutes, they tell me I’m OK, my white blood cell count looks good, no infection. The doctor tells me to stay away from the local food, get some rest. Eat boiled potatoes, he says.

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TUESDAY NIGHT, Jan. 10, 2006

VAN and DOGUBAYAZIT, Turkey _ My room is freezing, and I’m shivering underneath the blankets, my teeth chattering. I put on two long-sleeve shirts, a cashmere sweater and a fleece vest, take another blanket from the cabinet and go back to bed.

We’d spent the day traveling to Van and back to track down and meet with the family of a girl infected with the virus after she tried to comfort dying chickens. We talk with her family in her house. Her oldest brother keeps repeating: ``Maybe I’ve got it, too. Maybe I’ve got it, too.″ He insists we stay for lunch, but we can’t.

At around 11:30 p.m., back in Dogubayazit, I start throwing up.

We’ve been careful around birds, but after a few days here it gets hard to stay clean. You find yourself with workers near a chicken coop one minute, typing on your keyboard still wearing your gloves the next. I take a Tamiflu, an anti-flu medicine, just in case, although I’m worried I’ll just throw it back up.

I call Volkan, an AP Television News cameraman, to ask how he feels. He’d been sick before but says he’s fine. I write a note to the office asking whether I should be taking Tamiflu or not and go back to bed, nauseous, cold and spinning.

Meanwhile, the news headline is: Turkey confirms 15 humans infected with the H5N1 strain of bird flu, the most since the virus began to sweep southeast Asia in 2003.

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MONDAY, Jan. 9, 2006

DOGUBAYAZIT, Turkey _ We’ve been walking around town in white suits since we came, and people continue to approach us thinking we’re the destruction teams, here to deal with chickens. They ask us why we haven’t come to their neighborhood yet _ their chickens are dying, they can’t touch them, the place needs to be disinfected.

More than a week after the initial death from bird flu here, the first Turkish minister, Health Minister Recep Akdag, arrives in Dogubayazit. He comes with a group from the WHO, the World Health Organization, and goes to visit the family that lost three children to the virus.

The family is poor, like most families here, and lives in a simple concrete structure high on a hill, with a view of the town to one side and the snow-covered mountains to the other. The sound of women crying comes from inside.

When Akdag first arrives in town, he is greeted with clapping from gathered townspeople. When he leaves, police have to hold back a group of men screaming: ``There are no doctors!″ and asking why it took so long for someone to come.

Reports say Prime Minister Erdogan called to express his condolences to the Kocyigit family and asked to speak with the mother. The family, which is Kurdish, tells him mother is too weak to speak but speculation is that they don’t put her on the line because she can’t speak Turkish.

In the outbreak in the west in October, the village was filled with men from the Agriculture Ministry in Ankara helping to round up, gas and dispose of birds. This one has been managed locally, without enough workers for the job.

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SUNDAY, Jan. 8, 2006

DOGUBAYAZIT, Turkey _ A worker punches a child in the back who was laughing and running in and out of chicken coops. The worker yells at him to stay away, it’s dangerous. He sends another group of children scattering in all directions, yelling in Kurdish. Workers are getting fed up with the kids who follow them around everywhere, getting in the way, taking no precautions.

Word seems to be getting out about the virus, though, and villagers are yelling at the workers from the hilltops to come and get their chickens.

Some of them.

Acting on a hint from a little boy, workers go to one house and pound on a wooden door serving as an entrance in a stone fence. No one answers. They start to kick the door harder. The kid says there are lots of chickens in there. The workers climb over the stone fence and go back to a hut in the back of the yard. They are greeted by a woman in a headscarf screaming in Kurdish.

``It’s contagious!″ one of the workers screams, translated by another worker into Turkish.

``I don’t care! Mine aren’t sick!″ the woman screams back, blocking the door.

The workers give up after a yelling match, saying they’ll come back with the police. It’s their second time to this neighborhood, they say, and residents are now giving up the birds they’d hidden before. Some of the birds residents are delivering are now dead.

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SATURDAY, Jan. 7, 2006

DOGUBAYAZIT, Turkey _ This is what we mean when we write about culling:

Birds are pulled out of their pens or chased down in the open, grabbed by their wings or necks, and stuffed hard into a sack. If their heads stick out, a worker grabs the birds by the neck and pushes them down.

When the sack is filled with birds, workers squash it down, tie the top, and throw the squawking heap onto the back of a truck, usually with a thud and a ``gaawakk.″ The sacks hop around.

Some of the birds suffocate before they reach the dump. Those that don’t are either buried alive, or drenched in gas and set on fire. Then workers pile dirt and lime on top.

Many of the women here complain that it’s a shame to destroy so many live animals and either refuse to answer the door or only give up a few birds.

Villagers here say their birds have been dying. A couple of kids start digging to show the limp, dead animals. The village head says around 15 dogs have died too after eating sick birds. He shows us two of them, lying in separate places.

Many people here say they’ve never heard of bird flu. Just three months earlier, we were in Kiziksa, a village in the west, for a similar outbreak that led to the culling of more than 10,000 birds.

This is much bigger. People are dying, the disease is spreading among birds, and hundreds of thousands of chickens will be destroyed.

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FRIDAY, Jan. 6, 2006

DOGUBAYAZIT, Turkey _ The road from Van to Dogubayazit, where the bird flu cases originated, is across some 120 miles of snow-covered roads and a chain of craggy mountains that includes Mt. Ararat, where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed after the flood. On the way down, our cameramen see wolves to the side of the road.

There is a military checkpoint along the way, but not for bird flu. Some of the soldiers carry machine guns to deal with threats including an ongoing Kurdish rebel insurgency that has left almost 40,000 dead in Turkey since 1984. Others carry shovels to deal with the snow that renders the road barely visible in places.

The only traffic coming from the opposite direction is vans and buses filled with Iranians. This is the road ambulances have been using to cart bird flu patients to the hospital.

We get to Dogubayazit around 7 a.m.

One of the first things that strikes you is that children and animals, usually together, are everywhere. Many people here _ almost all Kurds _ don’t speak Turkish. This despite the fact that it was illegal even to speak Kurdish in Turkey until 1991.

Residents have already flooded to the local Agriculture Ministry to complain that no one is coming to get their sick birds. They say just go to any riverbank and you’ll see dead animals. Eight three-man teams, a total of 24 men, in protective gear spread out across the city of 56,000 in pickups to gather up and destroy fowl, going house-to-house and backyard-to-backyard. Packs of children follow them everywhere.

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THURSDAY, Jan. 5, 2006

VAN, Turkey _ The hospital is in lockdown. They’ve emptied out an entire ward just for bird flu patients, but no one else is allowed in. We spend most of the day freezing outside. The chief doctor comes out and asks for more resources, including respirators.

Even the tea men wear masks.

Mehmet’s sister, Fatma Kocyigit, 15, dies of bird flu here.

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ISTANBUL, Turkey _ A Turkish lab confirms that 14-year-old Mehmet Ali Kocyigit, who died on Sunday, was infected with bird flu. Turkey had earlier announced that the boy died of pneumonia.

I cancel plans for a holiday to the Autonomous Republic of Nakchivan (Azerbaijan), and get on the next available flight to Van in southeastern Turkey, along with AP photographer Murad Sezer.

The death is the first of bird flu outside of East Asia, and Kocyigit’s sister is also in critical and worsening condition at a hospital in Van.

Our office gathers supplies: masks, gloves, protective suits, boots, and Tamiflu, a medicine that attacks the influenza virus is believed to provide early protection against bird flu.