Children in the frontline

The leader of the Egitim Sen teachers' union has accused the government of not responding quickly enough to contain an outbreak of bird flu.

Alaatin Dincer, head of the union, said ministers had failed to act after the first case of bird flu was discovered in October.

Last week, three children in the same family died of the disease in Dogubeyazit, near the Iranian border, in eastern Turkey.

Leaflets about the dangers of bird flu were issued by the health ministry with pupils' end-of-term report cards last Friday, but these were only sent out in the affected areas. Since then, 11 further cases have been confirmed in four provinces across Turkey - in the Black Sea, Istanbul, Ankara and Van.

Officials from the World Health Organisation say there is no evidence of any human-to-human spread of the virus so far.

The three victims appear to have caught the virus after playing with dead chicken heads.

The level of education among local people in the affected areas in the east is generally low. Families are often poor and their animals are often their only asset. Many children are responsible for tending chickens, and many of the local residents are not declaring to officials that they are continuing to keep poultry.

The WHO said the virus had to be contained in animals because as the number of human cases grows, there will be an increased risk of the virus mutating into a form that could be passed between humans. The fear is that the virus will spread and that when schools return after the 23-day holiday they could become a breeding ground for a pandemic.

Before schools broke up for the holidays, teachers were instructed to tell children not to touch the birds. But eye-witnesses said an elder in the remote eastern village of Maksudiye had told children to collect all the birds for culling, putting the children at risk.

"Children are now on holiday for 23 days in Turkey," said Mr Dincer. "This time must be used effectively to educate and inform families of the dangers of bird flu.

"People in the villages are superstitious and don't believe in science, which is a hindrance to getting the message across. But we are ready to take any necessary action to inform and educate people."

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