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Italians Confront Bird Flu
by Francesca Di Meglio
OCTOBER 23, 2005 - Italians are always careful and choosy about what they eat - but now some feel it's become a matter of life and death. With discoveries of Avian or bird flu in poultry in nearby Romania, Croatia and Turkey, Italians are on high alert. Poultry consumption is down 30 to 40 percent this month, according to the Italian Farmers' Association as reported by Reuters. The authorities are taking action to protect Italy from an outbreak even though there's ongoing debate about whether the disease is likely to infect humans in Europe like it has in Asia. Here's what you need to know:
European newspapers and television news programs are mapping out bird migration to keep people informed. Scientists are working tirelessly to determine if the disease can and will be passed to humans in Europe anytime soon. In Italy, government scientists yesterday began taking blood samples from migratory birds captured throughout the country for immediate analysis.
Italians had a similar reaction when the mad cow disease scare hit Europe a few years back. For a while, no one was eating any beef. Authorities are telling people that they can continue eating poultry as long as it is cooked well. The belief is that the heat will kill off the disease.
Yesterday, Italy decided to ban imports of live poultry of any species and all related products from Romania, Croatia and other Balkan countries, according to Reuters. Importing pet birds and feathers from Russia was already banned while Russia continues to weed out sick birds.
The media is reporting that the H5N1 virus that gives birds the deadly disease does not easily spread to humans, and no one in Europe has contracted the disease yet. But more than 60 people in East Asia have died from the Avian flu, including a man in Thailand just last week, according to The Washington Post.
Italy is listing the point of origin on all poultry packages, so consumers can determine risk for themselves.
Officials in Italy have 150,000 doses of Tamiflu available and have ordered 6 million more in the hopes that it would help treat an epidemic. No one is quite certain yet if it will. But Italy takes the lead in the production of vaccines, and Health Minister Francesco Storace has asked major pharmaceutical companies to produce more Tamiflu, according to Agenzia Giornalistica Italia.
After criticism from hunters who are well into their season now, the government stopped short of banning the hunting of birds. But hunters cannot use live birds as lures.
Some, including center-left politician Romano Prodi, have warned against alarmism over bird flu. He's right to say that, especially since the disease in Europe has been contained to birds so far. But I'm sure many Italians would like to point out that taking precautions never killed anyone.
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