You may be concerned about recent news reports of avian influenza (bird flu, H5N1) in Turkey. Here’s my opinion:
I am planning a trip to Turkey for the solar eclipse in late March 2006, and I see no reason to cancel or postpone my trip.
According to the news reports so far, avian influenza is not (yet) easily communicable from an infected human to an uninfected human. You have to spend a lot of time around birds to get the disease. (For more, read the CDC Avian Influenza Fact Sheet. and the WHO Avian Influenza pages.)
(On January 10, 2006, the Boston Globenewspaper carried an Associated Press report about a study raising the possibility that many more people contract bird flu than is currently acknowledged, and that most have relatively light cases of it (the usual flu symptoms).
“‘The results suggest that the symptoms most often are relatively mild and that close contact [with birds] is needed for transmission to humans,’ wrote Dr Anna Thorson of Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm….”
The study, done in Ha Tay province of Vietnam, found that flu-like symptoms were much more prevalent in areas with lots of poultry than in areas without. This could mean that lots of people get bird flu, but few become seriously ill.
The current fear of bird flu comes mostly from the statistic that 50% of the people who get it, die from it. If, in fact, many more people get it but only mildly, it may be that bird flu is not too much worse than normal Asian flu, which many people get each year, and which some people die from, though the proportion of deaths is small.
“The closer the contact with sick or dead poultry, the higher the risk for flu-like illness,” Thorson said.
Hence my dictum: stay away from turkeys (and chickens and ducks, etc), but there’s no need to stay away from Turkey.
For example, I won’t be stopping in Istanbul‘s Eminönü Square to feed the flocks of pigeons that gather in front of the Yeni Cami (New Mosque). In fact, I’ll avoid flocks of pigeons—and any other flocks of birds—anywhere in the world.
What If It Mutates?
If the H5N1 avian flu virus mutates to a form that is easily communicable among humans, and an epidemic breaks out, and becomes a pandemic, it will reach all the countries in the world (Turkey, and yours as well), both domestic and international travel will most likely be affected, at least for a few weeks or months.
But also, it may not happen. Remember the swine flu epidemic threat a few years ago? Or all the world’s computers shutting down on Y2K? These disasters certainly seemed real at the time, but they never happened.
If it’s shown that most people who contract bird flu get mild cases, then there may be little danger. (Other dangers, such as traffic accidents,are much greater.) So if you’re willing to plan an international trip, it may as well be to Turkey as to any other country.
So, for right now, I’m planning to travel to Turkey. I don’t go near flocks of birds at home, and I don’t do it in Turkey, either. If I have to change my plans, it’ll happen all of a sudden, and sure I won’t be alone.
Here’s What We Know
Here’s what we know about H5N1 avian flu so far:
Humans catch avian flu by being in close proximity to infected birds. This was reportedly the case with those infected with avian flu in eastern Turkey: they had handled chickensthat had contracted avian flu from migratory birds.
(Among Turkey’s natural wonders is that it is rich in migratory birds. This is usually an appealing feature that draws many birdwatchers to Turkey.)
Thus, unless you plan to travel to a village in eastern Turkey and pluck a lot of chickens, you should be fine.
What You Should Do
All joking aside, it’s probably a good idea to avoid close contact with lots of birds of any kind, anywhere in the world these days. It’s not Turkey that’s the threat, but turkeys. Avoid going into chicken or turkey barns, aviaries, or anywhere else there might be a lot of bird droppings. (The dried feces become dust, get into the air, and can be breathed in, carrying disease.)
Interesting personal note: when I was 17 I contracted a disease called histoplasmosis, almost certainly from bird or bat droppings, that could have left me blind, or even killed me. Usually it caused tumors in the lungs (having been breathed in with dust from bird or bat droppings), but with me it lodged in the linings of my retinas and started to grow. Soon I could barely focus with my right eye, and my left one was starting to get fuzzy.
Luckily, researchers had developed an anti-fungal medicine called Amphoterecin B to treat the disease about six months before. It took two months of intravenous administration of the medicine in hospital, but it worked. My eyes recovered to better than 20/20 vision.
We could not trace where I had contracted the disease, but it was most probably from a Boy Scout hiking trip in the southwestern USA.
In any event, I have done my best to avoid flocks of birds, and bat-inhabited caves, and especially dried bird and bat droppings, forever after.
But you get my point: if you’re not afraid of planning a Boy Scout trip to Albuquerque because of bird diseases, you shouldn’t be afraid of planning a trip to Turkey, at least at this point in time.