Avian Flu Discovered in Wild Swans in Italy, Greece, Bulgaria

A doctor views images of swans in southern Italy whose death confirmed the spread to the E.U. of the H5N1 strain that can be deadly for humans.
A doctor views images of swans in southern Italy whose death confirmed the spread to the E.U. of the H5N1 strain that can be deadly for humans. (By Giuseppe Piazza -- Reuters)
By Maria Sanminiatelli
Associated Press
Sunday, February 12, 2006

ROME, Feb. 11 -- Bird flu has reached Western Europe, with Italy and Greece announcing Saturday they had detected the H5N1 strain of the virus in dead swans.

The announcement that the disease was detected in five swans in southern Italy came a day after the opening of the Winter Olympics in Turin, several hundred miles to the north. Italian officials said the virus had affected only wild birds and posed no immediate risk to people.

The European Union said the deadly strain, which has infected at least 166 people and killed 88, most of them in Asia, also had been confirmed in swans in Bulgaria.

No human infections were reported in the three countries, but the outbreak raised concerns that the spread of the disease could increase chances that it would mutate into a form easily transmissible among humans.

"It's a relatively safe situation for human health; less so for animal health," Italian Health Minister Francesco Storace said.

Also Saturday, authorities in Nigeria said they were investigating whether the deadly strain, which was discovered there last week, had spread to humans after at least two children were reported ill.

Investigations were being conducted in the country's commercial capital, Lagos, and in Kaduna. Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo gave no details and said he expected results to be released Sunday.

The chief bird flu expert for the United Nations, David Nabarro, said the spread of the disease, which has been ravaging poultry stocks across Asia since 2003, increased the chance that the virus could eventually cause a human pandemic. Most human deaths from the disease so far have been linked to contact with infected birds.

"We have got bird flu now in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and West Africa," Nabarro said, before the Greek and Italian announcements. "Compared with eight months ago, this is a major extension of the avian influenza epidemic."

Experts said they were reassured by the fact that the virus had been detected in wild birds in Western Europe instead of on farms.

"The risk to humans is less if the disease is in wildlife than if it is in poultry," said Juan Lubroth, a senior animal health officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

The virus was found in five swans in the southern Italian regions of Puglia, Calabria and Sicily, Storace said. The birds had arrived from the Balkans, he said, likely pushed south by cold weather.

The E.U. said Italy and Greece had agreed to create six miles of protection and surveillance zones around each outbreak area, where birds will be isolated to avoid infecting domestic birds, tested for the virus and killed if they are infected.

Hunting wild birds will be banned in the zones, and poultry will not be allowed outside them, according to the Italian Health Ministry.

Elsewhere, China reported its eighth human death from bird flu, and Indonesia its 18th.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company