The Virus Hunters: Fieldwork in Anatolia

Trip Start Jun 19, 2011
Trip End Jul 12, 2011

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Monday, June 27, 2011

The overnight bus ride to Corum was actually quite comfortable (another improvement from Indian transportation - there were no chickens riding on the Turkish bus!). The 2-decked bus had comfortable reclining seats, a bathroom, and each seat had a personal TV/radio (although everything was in Turkish). I fell asleep watching "Ice Age: The Dinosaurs" (in Turkish which made it even funnier!).

Corum is located in the north part of central Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey) and it's quite off the beaten path. This region of Turkey was home to the ancient Hittites (a Bronze Age people of Anatolia referenced in the Old Testament of the Bible; defeated Babylonia/Assyria, Egypt, etc. around 3000 yrs ago) and is near to the ruins of the Hittite capital, Hattusa. The reason we are here is for business, although I will look back on this day and remember it as one of the most memorable days of our trip! This part of Turkey is one of the endemic regions for CCHF (Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever - aka "Asian Ebola") and harbors the tick species that carries the virus. The virus was discovered in Turkey in 2002, and each year since then, the numbers of cases continue to increase, reaching an average of 1500 per year. Most of these cases are from central Anatolia. The mortality rate of CCHF here is around 5%.

I've been known to do an occasional crazy thing or two in my life, but I think that Dennis and I shall remember today for the rest of our lives. Dennis and I teamed up with the three Turkish veterinarians-turned-entomologists (Aysen, Zati, and Omer) to go hunting for ticks - in particular, we were looking the species (Hyalomma) known to carry the virus. What a unique (and insane) experience! After breakfast in our hotel, we went to the rural agrarian fields and villages near Corum and literally stood and waited for the ticks to emerge from the cracks in the ground to crawl toward our feet. Although we had a slow start, we eventually hit a gold mine for ticks. And man, do these types of ticks crawl fast!! So fast, that it is likely you could have missed a couple that have already made it half-way up your leg - a heart stopping realization. So, when you see the pictures, you will understand why we are dressed in such a goofy way (i.e., pants tucked into socks, socks wrapped with duck tape sticky-side-out, long sleeves, etc.) protect ourselves. No worries - we were very careful, continuously checked each other for ticks, etc. We took lots of showers and found no ticks later. :)

I totally enjoyed the drive. Small rudimentary villages, steep rocky hills, vast green fields, small streams, and a big blue sky overhead. We drove along the side of mountains, stopping every now and then to search for ticks in open fields. 

Around 2pm, Zati took us up a dirt road (on top of one the mountains) that led toward a small secluded area with a spring-fed water fountain (a feature we've become very accustomed to seeing around Bulgaria and Turkey) next to a small waterfall. This area was nestled in amongst a grove of hazelnut, walnut, and olive trees which provided a cool shade for us to wash up, eat lunch, and relax. Zati built a small fire near the rocky cliff side, and we shared a fresh loaf of bread, sliced fresh tomatoes, local cheese, and olives. Then, we ate watermelon for dessert! Then, we posed for photographs with a fresh water crab that I had discovered in the pool below the waterfall.

We drove back to Corum, stopping for cay (Turkish word for tea pronounced "chai"; always served hot in little tulip-shaped glasses) at a local veterinarian clinic along the way. We went back to the hotel, showered up, and then at 8pm we left again for a small village to observe Zati, Aysen, and Omer draw blood from the village cattle (for testing for antibodies against CCHFV). This village was chosen because it had experienced 2 fatalities from CCHF about 2 years ago. After the blood draw, we visited with the mayor and his family around a cushioned table in the mayor's backyard while drinking cay. What a wonderful opportunity we had here.

We ate a late night dinner back at the hotel and enjoyed several glasses of iced raki with the group. We were quite exhausted from the trip - what an incredible day!! I learned so much about ticks (more than I ever wanted to know, actually!). I think I may now also be a tick expert!!

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