Out in the remote, impoverished Turkish town of Dogubeyazit, a chicken is more than just a bird. For the hardscrabble villagers, it's often the only source of dietary protein, and for their children, the only toy. So it was no surprise that 15-year-old Fatma Kocyigit and her 14-year-old brother Mehmet Ali played with the sick fowl their father had brought indoors for protection from the bitter December cold. The fun proved fatal. The children came down with high fevers and bleeding throats; when they went to a nearby hospital, they received ordinary medication for a cold and were sent home.
A week later, when the children did not improve and their father told doctors about the chicken deaths, they were transferred to a better-equipped hospital in the nearby city of Van. Blood samples from the Kocyigits were sent to Ankara for tests, which showed that the children had contracted the deadly h5n1 strain of bird flu that has killed about half of those in Asia whose infections have been reported to the World Health Organization (who). By then it was too late; Mehmet Ali died on Jan. 1 and his sister four days later, setting off the latest upsurge of fear that the lethal virus might be invading Europe.
The virus has already crept stealthily into the four corners of Turkey. As a stopover on migratory bird routes, the country has known for months that it was vulnerable to the natural spread of the disease. Last May, the Turkish Agriculture Ministry warned provincial officials to ban live-poultry markets. Few did. Then in October, 1,800 turkeys died on a farm near a wild-bird sanctuary in the northwest of the country. The area was swiftly quarantined, infected birds were culled and farms were disinfected efficiently enough to calm fears of a major outbreak. But in mid-December, when the Agriculture Ministry looked into the first reports of bird flu among fowl far to the east in Dogubeyazit, the press said that its inspectors failed to notify the Health Ministry of any risk. "Turkey ignored all the warnings," Erdal Safak, columnist at the mainstream daily Sabah, told Time. "The government wasted valuable time. There was no public awareness campaign, no precautions were taken along documented migration routes, and provincial vets were not adequately equipped."
In the week that followed the Kocyigits' diagnosis, the who says, at least 16 other Turks in nine of the country's 81 provinces were diagnosed with the h5n1 virus the largest number of known cases to occur in such a short span. And the virus kept spreading. Soon the World Organization for Animal Health recorded another 28 suspected bird outbreaks in 14 provinces. "Clearly there was a poor understanding as to how much spread of h5n1 there was in poultry in Turkey," says Guenael Rodier, leader of the who team in Turkey. As the disease penetrated the eastern edge of Europe, governments across the Continent were asking tough questions about their own risk. So what lessons can they draw from the Turkish experience?
YOU'VE GOT TO MOBILIZE ASAP If you wait until people get sick, it can already be too late. Last week, teams of Turkish health workers in battered vans began to mount a nationwide chicken hunt, going house-to-house in white biohazard gear to search out sick birds. But in another snowy village outside Van, the Karatay family was still waiting for its fowl to be collected, a week after reporting the deaths of two chickens. "I do not understand why the officials take so long to get here if this disease is so serious," said Ali Karatay, a father of four. The government's chaotic response has unsettled his neighbors, who feel torn between protecting their families' lives and sacrificing their livelihoods along with their chickens. When Health Minister Recep Akdag finally arrived in Dogubeyazit, an angry crowd heckled him, calling out: "We need better hospitals!" and "Why has it taken you so long?"
For millions of Turks in rural Anatolia, awareness of bird flu's perils has been slow to arrive, especially in areas where there is little access to television. It was not until early January, some five days after the first Kocyigit child died, that the Turkish government launched a public-information campaign: setting up a telephone helpline, broadcasting health warnings on television and blaring the messages from mobile loudspeakers. One unmet challenge was to overcome farmers' reluctance to tell authorities about suspicious deaths. "They are afraid to report sick or dead animals," says European Union Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou, "because that could mean the entire stock is destroyed." In the short term, Turkey will have to offer poor families compensation for birds that are culled. In the long run, though, countries like Turkey need to teach residents of rural villages and urban shanty towns that they can no longer raise poultry haphazardly in their yards and streets, where domestic birds can come into contact with the migrating wild birds that naturally carry the virus around the world.