Italy health minister tours bird flu affected regions

The United Nations on Monday praised Italy's response to the detection of bird flu in wild swans, saying it was a model for other governments to follow and that Italian consumers had no reason to fear eating poultry. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency gave its endorsement as Health Minister Francesco Storace toured parts of southern Italy where the six infected swans were discovered, saying he wanted to calm fears about the virus' possible spread.

"We're visiting all (the afflicted areas) to send a signal of calmness to the citizens," Storace told SkyTg24 television in Catania, Sicily. Italy has confirmed that six wild swans, found in the southern regions of Sicily, Puglia and Calabria, had tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu virus. The cases in Italy and others confirmed in northern Greece on Saturday marked the first time the highly infectious strain had been detected within the European Union.

A statement from the Rome-based FAO said Italy's control measures were "extremely effective" and a model for other governments to follow once the virus is detected in their territories. "It is vital that control and surveillance measures continue," said Juan Lubroth, senior officer with the agency's animal health and production division. "There is not much we can do about wildlife, but to prevent the spread of the virus we must control the way poultry is raised and the way poultry products are marketed."

Poultry farms must adhere to strict sanitation standards, such as confining poultry to avoid any potential contact with wild birds, the agency said. But it added, "The current situation in Italy does not provide consumers with any cause to avoid eating poultry products."

Bird flu has killed at least 91 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003, according to the World Health Organization. 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.

After the virus was confirmed, Italy committed itself to a series of precautionary measures, including the creation of a 3-kilometer (2-mile) high-risk protection zone around each outbreak area, and a surveillance zone of an additional 7 kilometers (4 miles). Tests are being 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 has been banned in both zones, and poultry cannot be moved out of the surveillance zone.

The Health Ministry issued a three-point warning Sunday not to touch sick or dead birds and to seek professional help if such birds are found. It said people should wash their hands and any instruments that might have come in contact with a contaminated animal.

While stressing poultry was safe to eat, the ministry said poultry destined for slaughter in Italy was being checked by veterinarians before and after the birds are killed, and the meat that passes the test is labeled as such.

It also said there is no danger of getting the virus by eating poultry and eggs that had been cooked. The virus has ravaged poultry stocks across Asia since 2003, killing or forcing the slaughter of more than 140 million birds there.

Gian Luca Autorini, head of the diagnosis department at the animal health offices for the Lazio and Tuscany regions, said Monday it was unlikely the human death tolls registered in Asia would be repeated in Western Europe because food safety regimes here were better. "The risk is lower especially due to the reduced contact between the animal and humans compared to how much this occurs in those countries," he told AP Television News, reports the AP.

N.U.