SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq – Iraqi and U.N. health officials said Monday a 15-year-old girl who died this month was a victim of the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, the first confirmed case of the disease in the Middle East.
Tests were under way to determine if the girl's uncle, who lived in the same house, also died of the virus. He died 10 days later after suffering the same symptoms, officials said.
Iraqi health authorities began killing domestic birds in northern Iraq, which borders Turkey, where at least 21 cases of the deadly virus have been detected. Turkey and Iraq also lie on a migratory path for numerous species of birds.
"We regretfully announce that the first case of bird flu has appeared in Iraq," Iraqi Health Minister Abdel Mutalib Mohammed told reporters in the Kurdistan city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Mohammed made the announcement after receiving results from a laboratory in Egypt that conducted tests on the girl, who died Jan. 17.
"The results show the inflection with the deadly H5N1," he said. "We appeal to the World Health Organization to help us.'
The girl died after contracting a severe lung infection in her village of Raniya, about 60 miles south of the Turkish border and just 15 miles west of Iran.
The prospect of a bird flu outbreak in Iraq is especially alarming because the country is gripped by armed insurgency and lacks the resources of other governments in the region. Government institutions, however, are most effective in the Kurdish-run area of the north where the girl lived.
A U.N. official in Egypt, who refused to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, also said the girl died from the H5N1 strain and that 30 other samples from northern Iraq are being tested.
In Geneva, the WHO refused to confirm the result until it had received official notification from the Iraqi Health Ministry.
But Dick Thompson, a WHO spokesman, said the U.N. health body has requested more tests be done on samples at a WHO reference lab in Britain to be absolutely sure. Further tests could take two weeks, he said.
Another WHO official said it was possible that the disease could have spread from Turkey due to migratory patterns. Ranya is located near a lake often used by migratory birds passing through the area.
"As this has occurred in a region next to a country identified with a H5N1 outbreak, it would not be surprising" that it has shown up in Iraq, WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng said.
Kurdistan's health minister said authorities started culling domestic birds in the village where the girl lived and nearby areas.
"Today we started a campaign to kill birds in three towns — Raniya, Dukan and Qaladaza. We formed committees to do so," said Kurdistan Health Minister Mohammed Khoshnow.
Another Kurdistan Health Ministry official said thousands of domesticated birds are expected to be killed, but authorities were not equipped to kill migratory birds.
"We do not know how" to kill them, Najimuldin Hassan said.