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Reporter's notebook: Inside a human bird flu investigation

By Caleb Hellerman

Investigators at the home of a 19-year-old woman who died of H5N1 bird flu in Tangerang, Indonesia.


Flu Season

TANGERANG, Indonesia (CNN) -- We're greeted by an anxious-looking young woman, a stooped-over grandfather and a slender young man with a thin goatee and a white soccer shirt whose wife had just died.

Just two hours before, at the Ministry of Health where we had just finished an interview, we heard the news about the death of his young wife. A laboratory test found she was infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus. Now we're in her home village to see where she might have become infected and if her family or friends are sick, too.

The young woman at the door is the sister of the 19-year-old victim. The young man is the victim's husband and father of their 10-month-old daughter.

Before heading out, we hurriedly agreed to the ministry's ground rules: use our smallest video camera so as not to intimidate the family, and stay out of the way. In exchange for the chance to tag along we'll give a ride to two members of the ministry's investigation team.

The drive takes two hours, and we stop to ask directions at least half-a-dozen times.

In the back of our cramped SUV, winding through dusty streets on the outskirts of Jakarta, our worried translator asks if we still have protective masks. Thankfully, I left them in the car the day before. I give her a quick lesson on how to make it fit properly.

We'll have to make do without boots and gloves. Even if we had them, the investigation team doesn't, there's no way I could wear protective hazmat gear when I walk up to an unprotected, grieving family to ask for an interview. The mask is bad enough, although I'm glad to have it.

Abruptly, we find ourselves off the busy main street on a dirt lane of small, concrete homes. We pull over, get out and follow the medical detectives to a thatched-roof clubhouse that will serve as our meeting place.

Six or seven other investigators from the Ministry of Health are already sitting with the frightened family on the floor inside, filling out questionnaires, taking blood samples and dropping them into a small picnic cooler. We leave our shoes on the porch and join everyone inside. In a surrealistic touch, a big-screen TV is blaring a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon. No one bothers to turn down the volume.

We sit in the back of the room as our translator whispers updates: The 10-month-old daughter of the dead woman is sick, too, and so is the woman's 8-year-old brother and 5-month-old niece, cradled in the arms of the woman who greeted us. Bird flu? No one knows. Not taking any chances, the health team calls for an ambulance.

The investigators show little emotion as they take down this information, but I can see them privately exchanging looks. This case has them worried.

Children watch us from over the railing while clucking chickens stare through a backyard fence. The day before, on the spot where we're sitting, the dead woman's family washed her body to prepare it for burial. I begin to wish I had brought a pair of gloves.

It takes most of the afternoon to take blood samples and interview all the friends and neighbors. Everyone is beginning to look a little bored, and we find ourselves outside, stripping off our masks to get fresh air.

The young father holds his sick baby, then hands her off to a relative and sits smoking a cigarette, staring out at the road. I don't ask him how he feels about his wife being dead or his baby maybe having the same disease.

A few days later we learn that the two youngest children were not infected with bird flu after all. They're fine. The 8-year-old boy, on the other hand, is Indonesia's ninth confirmed case of H5N1. He's luckier than his sister, though. After receiving treatment with Tamiflu, he was still in the hospital but expected to recover.

By the time I get the news, I'm home with bronchitis. My doctor isn't happy to hear that I've been interviewing bird flu victims and tromping through yards near dead chickens. He sends me for tests. And even though I know it's very unlikely that I've caught anything life-threatening, I can swear there's relief in his voice when he says, "We didn't find anything."

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