Italy warns against touching sick birds

A special committee responding to the discovery of the deadly H5N1 virus in swans in southern Italy warned today that people should not touch sick or dead wild birds, but should seek professional help.

A special committee responding to the discovery of the deadly H5N1 virus in swans in southern Italy warned today that people should not touch sick or dead wild birds, but should seek professional help.

The emergency response committee of veterinary experts and health officials met today to discuss next steps after the virus was discovered in five wild swans. The Health Ministry issued the committee’s warnings.

The cases in Italy and others confirmed in northern Greece yesterday marked the first time the highly infectious strain of the H5N1 virus had been detected in the EU.

The Italian health ministry repeated today that the outbreak posed no immediate threat to humans nor to domesticated bird flocks because only wild birds had been infected.

The swans arrived from the Balkans, probably pushed south by cold weather. They were discovered in three southern Italian regions – Puglia, Calabria and Sicily.

After the virus was confirmed, Italy committed itself to a series of precautionary measures including the creation of a two-mile high-risk, protection zone around each outbreak area, and a surveillance zone of an additional four miles.

“We’ve adopted the first measures, and the protection of the affected area is already under way,” the health assessor for Puglia, Alberto Tedesco, said as he arrived for today’s meeting at the Health Ministry.

Tests are to be done on samples of domestic birds inside the protection zone. Birds that are infected or suspected of being infected will be killed.

Hunting wild birds will be banned in both zones, and poultry cannot be moved out of the surveillance zone.

Bird flu has killed at least 88 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003, the World Health Organisation said earlier this month.

Today, a WHO-sanctioned laboratory confirmed another two deaths in Indonesia. It has been ravaging poultry stocks across Asia since 2003, killing or forcing the slaughter of more than 140 million birds.

Almost all the human deaths have been linked to contact with infected poultry, but experts fear the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans, possibly sparking a human flu pandemic.

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