"I think we have to keep calm," French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand told France Info Radio. "With the information coming from Italy, Greece and Bulgaria as well as Nigeria, we are still dealing with a bird flu, that's to say it affects birds. There has never been a case of human-to-human transmission anywhere."
News on Saturday that Greece and Italy had found swans with highly pathogenic H5N1 confirmed the arrival in the European Union of a virus that has killed at least 88 people in Asia and the Middle East and forced the culling of millions of birds.
Meanwhile, bird flu claimed two more human lives in Indonesia, raising to 18 the number of deaths in the country from bird flu, a Health Ministry official said yesterday.
Additional suspected outbreaks in birds were reported, with EU member Slovenia saying it had sent samples of avian influenza H5 found in a swan to Britain for further tests to see if it was of the highly pathogenic variety.
Health authorities in Rome called for calm, while police in the capital reported an upsurge in calls from nervous residents reporting dead or sick birds, some of which were collected and taken for examination by veterinary authorities.
"The crisis unit is now becoming an anti-panic unit with a toll-free number available for the population," Rome daily Il Messaggero reported.
Health Minister Francesco Storace, who went on a tour of affected areas, urged people to take no risks and to kill birds suspected of carrying the disease.
In Brussels, a U.N. humanitarian official in Brussels expressed concern that bird flu could spread among displaced people in Africa.
"The ultimate nightmare I suppose would be this influenza being transmitted from human to human in overcrowded camps in Africa," U.N Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told reporters in Brussels.
Health officials in the countries with confirmed outbreaks stepped up their checks for further cases, with many making spot checks on poultry in areas where the virus had been found. Veterinary experts said more than 200,000 birds had been culled in northern Iraq to stem the spread of avian flu, which has killed one teenager there, and emphasized the virus posed no serious threat to human health.
While there have been avian outbreaks of the H5N1 strain in Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Ukraine, no human cases with the European Union have been reported. At present, humans can only contract bird flu through close contact with an infected animal, something that is far less likely with wild birds than farmed flocks.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome, cautioned that the virus could become entrenched in the Black Sea, Caucasus and Near East regions through trade and movement of people and animals, while migrating birds, particularly flying from Africa in the spring, could spread the disease farther.