13th Feb, 2006: ROME - 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 Games in Turin, several hundred miles to the north. Italian officials said the virus had only affected 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 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 for it to mutate into a form easily transmissible among humans, who generally catch the disease from domestic poultry.
"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 in the country last week, had spread to humans after at least two children were reported ill.
The U.N.'s chief bird flu expert said the spread of bird flu, which has been ravaging poultry stocks across Asia since 2003, increased the chance that the virus would mutate into a form transmitted between humans and set off a 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," Dr. David 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 has 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 Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
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 European Union 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 pet 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.
Greek authorities said health experts were checking poultry on farms and homes in the region where infected swans were found outside the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city.
The 25-nation EU said that H5N1 had been found in wild swans in the Bulgarian wetland region of Vidin, close to the Romanian border.
"There are no reports of people infected with the bird flu virus," the Bulgarian Health Ministry said.
In Nigeria, Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo said authorities were trying to determine whether the H5N1 strain discovered on a farm in the northern state of Kaduna on Wednesday -- the first time it was found in Africa -- had spread to humans after several people were reported ill. Authorities have since reported the same virus in two other Nigerian states.
Investigations were being conducted in the commercial capital, Lagos, and in Kaduna. Lambo gave no details, but said he expected results to be released Sunday.
Elsewhere, China reported its eighth human death from the H5N1 strain, and Indonesia reported its 18th death.