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Birmingham, England • A teenage Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education has responded well to treatment and impressed doctors with her strength, the British hospital where she was being treated said Tuesday.
Experts are optimistic that 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, who was airlifted Monday to Britain to receive specialized medical care, has a good chance of recovery because unlike adults, the brains of teenagers are still growing and can adapt to trauma better.
"Her response to treatment so far indicated that she could make a good recovery from her injuries," the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in central England’s Birmingham said in a statement.
Despite the early optimism, the full extent of Malala’s brain injuries has not been made public and outside experts cautioned it is extremely unlikely that a full recovery of all her brain’s functions can be made. Instead, they could only hope that the bullet took a "lucky path" — going through a more "silent," or less active — part of the brain.
"You don’t have a bullet go through your brain and have a full recovery," said Dr. Jonathan Fellus, chief scientific officer at the New Jersey-based International Brain Research Foundation.
Malala was returning home from school in Pakistan last week when she was targeted by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education and criticizing the militant group’s behavior when they took over the scenic Swat Valley where she lived. Two of her classmates were also wounded in the attack and are receiving treatment in Pakistan.
She arrived Monday in Britain, where she can be protected from follow-up attacks threatened by the militants. The Taliban have threatened to target Malala again because she promotes "Western thinking."
There was some concern for the teenager’s safety Tuesday when police stopped and questioned two people who tried to visit Malala, but hospital officials and police stressed there was no threat to the girl’s safety. The two people, who claimed to be Malala’s relatives, were turned away.
"We think it’s probably people being over-curious," hospital spokesman Dr. Dave Rosser said.
Pakistani doctors at a military hospital earlier removed a bullet from Malala’s body that entered her head and headed toward her spine. The military has said she was able to move her legs and hands several days ago when her sedatives were reduced. They have not said whether she suffered any brain damage or other permanent damage.
On Monday, the military said damaged bones in Malala’s skull will need to be repaired or replaced, and she will need "intensive neuro rehabilitation." The decision to send the girl abroad was taken in consultation with her family, and the Pakistani government will pay for her treatment.
Doctors say Malala has an advantage because teens are generally healthier and their bodies have a stronger ability to react to the disruption that the injury causes.
"It helps to be young and resilient to weather that storm," Fellus, at the International Brain Research Foundation, said. "Because her brain is continuing to develop at that age, she may have more flexibility in the brain."
There’s also a psychological aspect to why youngsters have a better shot at recovery. While injured adults often mourn the loss of what they had, teens don’t know what they are missing.
"They have an amazing capacity for hope," Fellus said. In Malala’s case, her strong personality would also help her recover, he added.
Still, experts cautioned that it is impossible to say how Malala will do without knowing the path of the bullet and what damages it caused, details that have not been released.
"The brain is like real estate," said Dr. Anders Cohen, chief of neurosurgery at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York. "Location is everything.
"Based on the information we have, it appears that Malala was shot from the front down diagonally, but we don’t know what part of the brain the bullet went through, whether it crossed the midline and hit any vessels, or whether the bullet passed through the right or left side of the brain."
The attack on the girls horrified people in Pakistan and across the world. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said Malala had become "a symbol of all that is good in us."
"The work she did is far higher before God than that which is being done by terrorists in the name of religion," he said at the Economic Cooperation Organization Summit in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. "We will continue her bright work."
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik has announced a $1 million bounty for Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan, saying he was the one who announced that the Taliban carried out the attack on Malala.
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