Italy health minister urges citizens to not touch dead birds

Italy's health minister toured parts of southern Italy on Monday where six wild swans infected with a deadly strain of bird flu virus were found as officials sought to allay fears by saying people need only follow simple precautions to keep the virus from spreading.

Francesco Storace arrived in Catania, Sicily, and planned to visit the regions of Calabria and Puglia on the Italian mainland where the infected birds were discovered.

The visit came a day after the Health Ministry confirmed that test results had come back positive for the H5N1 virus strain on a swan found in Puglia, the sixth positive result in Italy.

"The important thing is not to touch those animals," Storace told a news conference Sunday. The cases in Italy and others confirmed in northern Greece on Saturday marked the first time the highly infectious strain of the H5N1 virus had been detected within the European Union.

The Health Ministry repeated Sunday that the outbreak posed no immediate threat to people or domesticated bird flocks because only wild birds had been infected.

Bird flu has killed at least 88 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003, according to the World Health Organization. On Sunday, a WHO-sanctioned laboratory confirmed another two deaths in Indonesia.

Almost all of 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 people, possibly sparking a human flu pandemic.

An emergency response committee of veterinary experts and health officials met Sunday in Rome to discuss next steps. The ministry announced the committee's warning not to touch sick or dead birds and seek professional help if such birds are found. People should wash their hands and any other instruments that might have come in contact with a contaminated animal, it said, reports the AP.

I.L.