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Bird Flu, Not Olympics, Steals Spotlight in Italy


It's the first day of the Winter Olympics in Italy but an outbreak of bird flu could be the cause for significant distraction from the Games. Cases of the deadly virus have been confirmed in Italy's south, as well as in Greece and Bulgaria.

While all of Italy is focused on the Winter Olympic Games in the north of the country, down south an outbreak of bird flu has been confirmed in three regions; Calabria, Puglia and Sicily.

The cases are the first to have been reported in Italy. After briefing the cabinet Saturday morning on the situation, Health Minister Francesco Storace confirmed the deadly virus was detected in swans.

He said the worst affected region at the moment was Sicily, where the problem was more widespread.

Storace said there are continuous changes on the number of dead swans. So far, he added, 17 swans have died in three southern Italian regions, most of them due to the H5N1 strain.

He said testing was conducted at a laboratory in the northern city of Padua, and further testing was under way. Storace also said that the disease probably arrived due to the migration of birds, caused by the cold weather conditions in the Balkans and in the north of Europe.

The health minister said no humans have been infected. He also sought to reassure the nation that the outbreak poses no immediate threat to humans and just affects birds.

The minister announced that he would sign a decree forbidding any movement of animals in some areas of the three affected regions for 21 days.

Meanwhile a, a senior animal health officer at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Juan Lubroth, said that for humans, the risk of transmission would be through domestic poultry. He said that if poultry is kept in open areas in contact with infected wild life, chances of transmission will be higher.

The World Health Organization says bird flu has killed at least 88 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003. Almost all the deaths have been linked to contact with infected poultry, but experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that spreads more easily among humans.