March 14, 2006

UN agency thinks bird flu caused death of Azeris

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization said on
Tuesday it believed test results showing three young women in
Azerbaijan had died of bird flu were reliable, but it awaited
final confirmation from a British laboratory.

Azeri health officials said the three victims had fallen
ill with the disease after contact with sick birds and were not
thought to have infected each other.

"The information we have from the Ministry of Health is
that it is indeed three young women. Those are the three that
are confirmed as having H5 virus," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl

He gave their ages as 17, 20, and 21.

The youngest victim died on February 23 and the WHO had
initially considered her death as being caused by a
pre-existing respiratory condition. The two older victims died
in March, according to Hartl.

Results were still pending on two other suspect deaths in
the former Soviet state -- including a 16-year-old boy related
to the teenage girl. The boy died last Friday.

The initial results came from a mobile laboratory brought
into Azerbaijan from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit in
Cairo. The tests were positive for H5 avian flu, but the exact
strain of the virus was not yet known.

Earlier WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said: "We are
proceeding as if it is H5N1...We are sending an epidemiologist
and clinician right away and are looking at possibly a large

Local media quoted residents as saying there had been mass
deaths of birds in the area and that the infected people kept
domestic poultry at their home.

While it remains mostly a disease of poultry, bird flu can
occasionally infect humans and has previously killed at least
98 people in seven countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Scientists fear it is only a matter of time before the
virulent virus mutates into a form that passes easily among
people, triggering a pandemic which could kill millions.

Azerbaijan is located on the Caspian Sea, sandwiched
between Russia and Iran. It also shares a border with Turkey
where four children died from bird flu in January.

The United Nations health agency hoped that the samples
would leave the capital Baku on Wednesday, according to Hartl.

Two victims came from the Salyan region is in southern
Azerbaijan near the Caspian Sea coast, while the 21-year-old
who died last Thursday was from a different province, Hartl