Poverty hampers bird flu fight

Rain is falling across the Istanbul suburb of Kucukcekmece as health workers are on alert and Turkey enters another day at the centre of worldwide bird flu fears.

    Bird flu has spread across Turkey

    On Monday, this poor district of the city became the first part of European Turkey to report cases of the virus - news that caused great alarm, as it showed the flu had spread right across the country.

    Now, Turkish and international health officials are trying to figure out just how the H5N1 virus, which killed three teenagers in Eastern Turkey last week, has spread so far and so fast.

    But while medical experts assess the evidence, many Turks see the disease as a symptom of some of the country's deeper problems.

    Baris Ustundagi, a shopkeeper in Kucukcekmece, says: "For many of the people here, making ends meet is so hard. They need to keep chickens for the eggs, the meat. They can't afford to buy everything from a shop."

    The three that died, and the 15 others currently hospitalised by the virus, all appear to have caught bird flu after coming into close contact with sick poultry.

    Gurcan Kocan, a sociology professor from Istanbul Technical University Humanities and Social Sciences Department, explains: "All of the cases that have come about so far have been from slums, poor neighbourhoods and deprived villages.

    "The wages in these areas are only around $300 a month, which means the majority of people are desperate to produce their own food. That's why they keep chickens in the back yard."

    Disease v hunger

    As a result, health workers charged with rounding up poultry have found it difficult persuading locals to hand them over.

    Mert Uckan, another Kucukcekmece resident who lives in a shanty house with his wife, six children and grandparents, tells Aljazeera.net of his dilemma: "We don't want anyone to get sick. But what will happen if they take our animals away? How do we find food?"

    Health workers find it hard to get 
    people to give up their poultry

    Some municipalities have offered poor residents money to hand over their poultry, but there is no nationwide scheme of compensation yet in place.

    Nevertheless, culling poultry remains the only recommended way of preventing the disease from spreading. So far, Turkish health authorities have culled 300,000 birds nationwide.

    At the same time, an educational campaign is under way to warn citizens of the dangers posed by the virus.

    However, this campaign has its difficulties too.

    Edmund McLoughney, Turkey representative for the United Nations children's and education organisation, Unicef, says: "It's a major communications challenge.

    "There is a huge problem with illiteracy - particularly among females. It's the women, too, who usually take charge of the poultry. But clearly, there's not much point in giving out a leaflet which writes 'don't handle sick chickens' to someone who is illiterate."

    Illiteracy problem

    McLoughney estimates that in the province where the flu outbreak began, Agri in eastern Turkey, as many as 40% of women are illiterate.

    The reason for the higher concentration of illiteracy among females is that traditional families often do not value any education for women, and keep girls out of school.

    Unicef and the Turkish Education Ministry are currently conducting a major campaign to persuade families to send girls to school, but it is sometimes a tough battle against ingrained cultural practices.

    "There is a huge problem with illiteracy - particularly among females. It's the women, too, who usually take charge of the poultry. But clearly, there's not much point in giving out a leaflet which writes 'don't handle sick chickens' to someone who is illiterate"

    Edmund McLoughney,
    Turkey representative for Unicef

    Another problem can be the language itself.

    Health worker Serdar Duygun says: "Out in the east and southeast - and in some of the districts of the cities too - Turkish is not people's first language.

    "People speak Kurdish, especially in the villages and some of the poorer neighbourhoods."

    Turkey's east and southeast are home to many of the country's ethnic Kurdish population. Until recently, their language was banned and is still forbidden in official publications, speeches or broadcasts.


    Educating people about the dangers is also hampered by other social and cultural factors.

    Alattin Dincer, head of Turkey's largest teachers' union, Egitim Sen, says that superstition is often to blame.

    "The people in these villages are superstitious and they don't believe in science, which is a hindrance when trying to get the message across that bird flu is a virus and needs to be taken seriously," he says.

    Kocan agrees. "The majority of people here believe in fate. They don't calculate so much, but just live on a day-to-day basis. Only the more educated people take government warnings seriously."

    Meanwhile, others put the blame for the spread of the virus on municipal, governmental and even international authorities.

    Last October, Turkey experienced its first bird flu outbreak, in the northwestern province of Balikesir.

    Dincer says: "After the Balikesir case of bird flu, the first case in Turkey, the government only ran localised campaigns that were insufficient. The reasons behind this, in my opinion, are fears over the impact it would have on the economy and tourism."

    Income concerns

    The poultry business is worth about $2.5 billion, according to government estimates, while tourism brought $15.3 billion into the country last year.

    At the same time, Turkey has been implementing the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund for the past 10 years, says Kocan.

    Three teenagers have died from
    bird flu in Turkey

    This followed a string of major financial crises and an IMF-backed bail out.

    "This has meant major cut backs in government spending, which means there aren't enough educated, trained people employed by the agriculture and health ministries to handle something like this effectively, nor are there enough doctors and medical workers," Kocan says.

    Yet despite these difficulties, the government has poured what resources it has into combating the spread of the virus.

    Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said on Tuesday: "The situation is under control and we will continue to monitor it closely."

    Doctors from western Turkey have been sent to the east, while soldiers have also been mobilised to ensure poultry is eradicated and roads to isolated villages are opened.


    Unicef is also currently working with the Ministry of Education to prepare leaflets on the virus for distribution to pupils when they return to school in two weeks, after the Eid al-Adha Muslim holidays. 

    "We don't want anyone to get sick. But what will happen if they take our animals away? How do we find food?"

    Mert Uckan,
    Kucukcekmece resident

    Aimed also at the children's families, these will use methods developed in Asia - which has been battling the flu for several years - to get the message across to potentially illiterate citizens.

    Additionally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Wednesday that the virus could become endemic in Turkey - and has warned neighbouring countries to take strong precautions.

    Meanwhile though, for many of Turkey's poorer citizens, the outbreak threatens not just health, but a way of life.

    Uckan, the Kucukcekmece resident, asks: "Without poultry, what will we eat? If we cannot keep birds, how will we continue here?"

    It seems a tough question to answer in the shanties of Istanbul, as the rain keeps pouring.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


    Visualising every Saudi coalition air raid on Yemen

    Visualising every Saudi coalition air raid on Yemen

    Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states have launched more than 19,278 air raids across Yemen.

    Lost childhoods: Nigeria's fear of 'witchcraft' ruins young lives

    Lost childhoods: Nigeria's fear of 'witchcraft' ruins young lives

    Many Pentecostal churches in the Niger Delta offer to deliver people from witchcraft and possession - albeit for a fee.

    Why did Bush go to war in Iraq?

    Why did Bush go to war in Iraq?

    No, it wasn't because of WMDs, democracy or Iraqi oil. The real reason is much more sinister than that.