Experts seek to contain Azeri bird flu outbreak
By Rufat Abbasov
SALYAN, Azerbaijan (Reuters) – A bird flu outbreak in
Azerbaijan that has killed five young people seems to have
stabilized, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on
Wednesday, while Palestinians feared the virus has reached
The five deaths from the H5N1 virus were the first in
Azerbaijan, which lies on a crossroads between Europe and Asia.
The deaths took the known global human toll from bird flu
to 103 in eight countries since late 2003.
Cristiana Salvi, spokeswoman for the WHO’s mission in
Azerbaijan, said no new cases of human infection had been
confirmed since the first week in March.
“These are not new cases arising,” she told Reuters. “This
is very important because it means the situation seems to be
However, anxious Azeris have rushed to hospital for checks
and a villager in one affected area said people were panicking
over the virus.
The WHO’s Salvi added that there was no evidence to suggest
human-to-human transmission — scientists’ worst case scenario
that, if it happens, could lead to a global pandemic killing
millions of people.
Scientists said on Wednesday they may have uncovered why
bird flu has not been able to spread easily among humans.
It is because bird flu viruses attach to receptors, or
molecules on cells, in different regions of the respiratory
system from human influenza viruses. Humans have receptors for
avian viruses but they are found deep within the lungs.
“For the viruses to be transmitted efficiently, they have
to multiply in the upper portion of the respiratory system so
that they can be transmitted by coughing and sneezing,” said Dr
Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, who led the research team.
Kawaoka and a team of researchers in Japan infected human
tissue with bird flu viruses. Their findings suggest that
strains of H5N1 circulating in birds would have to undergo
several key genetic changes to move easily between humans.
BIRD FLU SPREAD
Bird flu has spread rapidly since late 2003 from Asia to
Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The United States fears it
will arrive on its shores before year’s end.
Since the beginning of January, 30 countries have reported
outbreaks, in most cases involving wild birds such as swans.
Palestinian officials said they had good reason to suspect
the virus had killed around 30 chickens at a farm in an area
close to the border with Israel, which is battling an outbreak
at poultry farms.
The H5N1 virus has also been detected in neighboring Egypt
where it has been blamed for the death of a woman.
A summit on bird flu in Africa said the world’s poorest
continent needed at least three more veterinary laboratories
and three more human health laboratories.
AZERIS RUSH TO HOSPITAL
There was anxiety among ordinary people in Azerbaijan, a
mainly Muslim country of eight million people wedged between
Russia, Iran and Turkey.
“People are nervous and they run to the hospital even when
they just have a light cough,” said Myakhyabbat Ibrahimova,
chief doctor at Baku’s hospital No. 7. Signs on the doors of
the hospital said it was under quarantine.
The deaths occurred between February 23 and March 10. Four
of the five victims were female.
WHO epidemiologists are looking into the possibility that
the victims fell ill after plucking dead wild swans, a common
practice in the region. The feathers are used in pillows.
The village at the center of the outbreak is so gripped by
fear that local people refused to attend the victims’ funerals
for fear of getting ill, a villager said.
Four of the victims were from the village of Daikend in the
Salyan region of southern Azerbaijan. Two young women and a boy
were members of the same extended family. A third girl was a
“No one went to the funerals of those girls,” said Ilham
Salamov, who lives in Daikend and had come into the regional
capital Salyan, about 20 km (13 miles) away.
“Everyone is afraid. There is panic in the village.
Everyone is scared about bird flu.”
(Additional reporting by Pat Reaney in London, Besan Omary
in Ramallah and Antoine Lawson in Libreville)