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Third Suspected Human Bird Flu Case in Iraq

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a possible third human case of bird flu in Iraq following the deaths of two people from the disease in the northern part of the country last month. Agency officials have allayed fears that the two earlier cases occurred because of transmission among humans.

World Health Organization officials say Iraqi health authorities have reported a suspected case of H5N1 bird flu in the region of Diyala, north of Baghdad. The WHO representative in Iraq, Dr. Naeema al-Gasseer, says the potential case has emerged from a recent poultry outbreak there. Iraqi officials are sending samples of the suspected virus to a WHO laboratory to verify the suspicion.

So far, there have been just two confirmed human bird flu cases in Iraq, a 15 year old girl and her uncle, both of whom died last month in the northern province of Sulaimaniya. Al-Gasseer told reporters by telephone from Geneva that those fatal cases were contracted by the handling of poultry and not caught from another person, the path that health officials fear could set off a global pandemic.

"There was a concern by the public in Iraq, by the government in Iraq, and by the media that possibly there has been a kind of human-to-human transmission," said Dr. al-Gasseer. "Our finding is that this was not a human-to-human transmission. The case investigation showed that both the young woman and her uncle had come in touch with poultry that possibly were infected."

The Iraqi province in which the bird flu deaths occurred last month is close to the Turkish border. WHO Global Influenza Program official Michael Perdue, says the agency's laboratory studies of the viral strain taken from the victims indicate that it is the same one seen in people in Turkey.

"Certainly, the human isolates look like the human isolates from Turkey," he said. "So it's probably a reflection of this virus in the last few months having arrived possibly from Asia via migratory birds. The evidence for this possibility is growing in Europe, where we now know that nine different countries at least have identified H5N1 in wild birds that have been picked up on beaches and in waterfowl areas."

Perdue and Al-Gasseer spoke after leading a team of United Nations health and veterinary officials to Iraq to assess the measures the country is taking to control bird flu. Al-Gasseer praised the work the government and regional officials are doing, especially in establishing a special fund to deal with outbreaks and in killing infected poultry. But she notes that many of the birds are culled on small backyard farms, removing a source of food and income for their owners. She says there is a great need to develop a way to compensate these small poultry farmers for their losses.