European officials were scrambling Sunday to contain outbreaks of bird flu after cases of the H5N1 strain of the viral disease were for the first time confirmed in EU members Greece and Italy as well as in Bulgaria.
Checking swans in Greece
Italian health officials held a crisis meeting Sunday after the discovery of H5N1 in southern Italy. The meeting was chaired by Health Minister Francesco Storace and brought together health officials from Puglia, Calabria and Sicily -- the southern regions where the virus was found in migrating swans.
The health official for Puglia, Alberto Tedesco, told the meeting that strict control measures were already in place, ANSA news agency reported. Another expert attending the meeting, Antonio Limone, said the situation was "under control" in agricultural zones and on the markets.
A microscopic view of the virus
Storace said Saturday that the highly pathogenic strain, responsible for the deaths of some 90 people, mainly in Asia, had been found in a total of 21 dead swans, five of them with a virulent form.
The European Commission reacted calmly to the news that the virus had for the first time crossed into the 25-member bloc, after having previously infected birds as close as Romania and killed four people in Turkey.
Calmi n g co n sumer fears
Storace tried to calm fears by saying that no one had caught the virus directly from wild birds. But hospitals in Sicily said they would test patients showing flu symptoms to determine the type of infection.
Five chickens found dead near the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta were undergoing tests.
Italian officials say they're safe to eat
In a bid to calm possible consumer fears Italian poultry lobby officials said their "products are undergoing the most severe tests in Europe."
Greek poultry farmers also stressed that bird flu detected near the northern city of Salonika Saturday among three wild swans "does not concern farm birds." But authorities and ornithologists fear that more birds may be infected with the lethal avian flu after swans fleeing an exceptionally severe European winter were found dead on the territory.
A Greek official on Saturday called on citizens not to panic but to observe simple health precautions.
More cases expected
Yannis Tsougrakis of the Salonika region's Ornithological Union told AFP that the number of swans in the Evros (Meric in Turkey) river delta, Greece's largest waterbody on the northeastern border with Turkey, had risen from 830 in mid-January to 11,000 at the end of the month.
Last year, inspectors found no evidence of bird flu in Greece
"After the unexpected arrival of waterbirds -- the main carriers of the virus -- fleeing the recent cold snap in northern Europe, it was more than likely that the H5N1 virus would be detected in Greece," he said, predicting a rise of the caseload.
But he also warned against dramatizing "as we have dead swans because of the cold and lack of food every year."
Striking a reassuring note ornithologist Thodoris Kominos said that "few people currently live near the waterbodies so the risk of infection is small."
Bulgaria which wants to join the European Union next year said it was taking all precautionary measures to protect its people from an outbreak of bird flu after an EU reference laboratory Saturday confirmed H5N1 in a wild swan found in the northwest of the country.
New cases i n Slove n ia
The H5 bird flu virus has also been detected in a swan in EU member Slovenia, EU officials said Sunday.
"The Slovenian authorities today informed the European Commission of a confirmed case of avian influenza virus H5 in a swan," a statement issued by the EU's executive branch.
A Slovenian laboratory made a first analysis and was sending samples to the EU Reference Laboratory for Avian Influenza in Weybridge, England, for further tests, it added. Slovenia pledged to immediately apply the same precautionary measures as those set out in a commission decision adopted for Greece and Italy during the weekend.
Slovenian authorities are in close contact with their Austrian counterparts, since the surveillance area crosses the Slovenian-Austrian border, the EU statement said.