Italy Braces for Bird Flu Outbreak

Stefano Marangon, sanitary director of the Zooprophylactic Institute near Padua, which is the scientific hub for Italy's response to the problem, reported that the health ministry had set up an emergency task force and taken steps to prepare for an outbreak.

"Among those steps are the acquisition of pre-emption rights for vaccines in case of a pandemic, and the building of stocks of antiviral medicine," he was quoted as saying, adding that the plan outlined possible scenarios and solutions and drew up a chain of command for an emergency.

A medical expert from the European Center for Disease Protection and Control expressed his fear this week it was "a near certainty" that there would be a bird-flu pandemic in Europe within the next decade.

So far, most human cases can be traced to contact with infected birds. The millions of birds which migrate between Africa, eastern and western Europe could spread the virus. The strain has already affected flocks of both wild and farm birds in Russia and eastern Europe.

"We have tried to analyze the risk of the spread of bird flu to Italy, but it's impossible because some essential pieces of information are missing," Marangon said. "We don't know which species of migrating birds can carry the virus, we don't know what the level of contamination of those species is, or how long they survive."

Italy found a mild form of the H5 virus in a wild duck in November.

Some 70 people have died from the H5N1 strain of the virus in Asia, where it was first detected, and there have been outbreaks in Romania, Turkey and Ukraine. The World Health Organization has warned there could be a pandemic if the strain mutates into one which can be easily transmitted from human to human.

In Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, the Ministry of Emergency Situations is continuing to isolate infected areas and cull diseased birds from small farms. Its press service said that as of yesterday, more than 58,700 infected birds had been culled and nearly 900,000 hryven (some $200,000) have been paid to local farmers.

More than 32,000 people have been examined, the service said, and more than 25,000 have been vaccinated, including 4,396 children. More than 430 are under medical observation after having been found in premises where there had been dead birds. However, the service said, there has still been no transmission of bird flu to humans.


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