Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Doctor and Birdwatcher On Call For Bird Flu

Metehan Özen, middle, sets up bird-watching gear with friends at Turkey's Karakaya lake.


On a recent Sunday, Metehan Özen -- one of Turkey's foremost birdwatchers -- trained his $1,500 Leica telescope on an orange-chested Merlin falcon and watched it devour a smaller bird in a flurry of claws, flying feathers and blood.

A few days earlier, two boys played with a dead crow, developed a fever and were brought to Dr. Özen's pediatric hospital ward. There, the specialist in infectious diseases monitored them closely for signs of bird flu.

For years Dr. Özen's hospital job and his hobby existed in unconnected worlds. As Turkey grapples with the bird-flu outbreak here that has quickly infected at least 21 people and killed four, the doctor's two callings have put him in the middle of the quest to understand the virus and contain its spread.

Fellow doctors used to tease him about birdwatching. Not anymore. Over the past two weeks, as the virus rolled out across Turkey, the 37-year-old Dr. Özen briefed the country's top public-health officials about the epidemiology of avian flu and about the migratory routes of wild birds. They are suspected of introducing the virus to domestic poultry, which in turn can infect people. He took a long bus drive amid heavy snowfall and howling wolves to get to the scene of the first human cases near the Southeastern town of Van. There, he saw infected children and their chest X-rays, and visited the parents of three who had died. He helped draft the government's measures to combat the virus, including culling poultry and isolating domestic birds from humans and wild birds, and persuaded officials to ban the hunting of all wild fowl.

In September, Dr. Özen warned colleagues at a medical congress that wild birds could bring avian flu to Turkey during the winter migratory season, and that is now an accepted theory. Trade in infected poultry is another means for the virus to spread. "When you compare maps of migration patterns with maps showing bird-flu outbreaks, they often match each other," said Mehmet Ali Torunoglu, the head of the communicable diseases section at Turkey's ministry of health. "Metehan seems to be right."

In late 2004, Dr. Özen tracked a satellite-tagged goose as it flew from Northern Russia, down to Kazakhstan, Eastern Turkey and Iraq, and then back. The goose's stops along the route gave Dr. Özen ideas about how the virus could spread through migratory flyways.

After visiting Van, Dr. Özen spent some time working with a team of experts at the Turkish health ministry's crisis center in the capital of Ankara. When he returned home, bad news awaited him at his hospital. The two young boys who had found a dead crow in their backyard had a mild form of viral pneumonia, a possible symptom of bird flu. In its human form, the virus often attacks the lungs and causes them to fail. Dr. Özen put the boys in an isolated ward, and waited uneasily for the results of tests that can determine bird flu.

They came back negative. So after his tense week, Dr. Özen headed out into the countryside for his usual pastime, but with a difference: Avian flu was never off his mind. Now, "every bird you see is suspect," Dr. Özen says.

He awoke at 6 on Sunday morning and set off to explore the rich avian world of the Karakaya lake on the outskirts of Malatya, an Eastern Anatolian town known mostly for its apricot orchards. Accompanied by two buddies -- a plastic surgeon and a railroad worker -- Dr. Özen was soon announcing the sightings of particularly interesting birds by chanting "aha, aha, aha...ha-ha-ha!"

A stocky beige barn owl, drowsy and slow in the early morning sunshine, was being chased and harassed by two nimble magpies swerving around it like two fighter-jets. A group of gray herons, their long necks recoiled for a nap, stood motionless on the shore. Two pygmy cormorants, an endangered species, flew across the bright blue sky. Thousands of ducks and Armenian gulls, their numbers swelled by winter migration, crisscrossed the lake.

In the village of Toygar, right on the shore of the Karakaya lake, several roosters crossed the road and headed toward the water to mingle with hundreds of wild ducks. "This is exactly what I fear," Dr. Özen said. For most people, close contact with wildfowl is extremely rare, but domestic poultry routinely mix both with wild birds and with people. Sure enough, two children hopped off a donkey cart next to a wooden shack and approached the roosters.

Since then, he has sighted around 370 species out of Turkey's estimated 456, and he is at work on a "Birds of Turkey" volume. He and his buddies are now preparing a trip to look for a bird called the Great Bustard because at 26 pounds it's the heaviest thing flying in these parts.

No comments: