The health ministry is urging Italians to stay calm in the face of an outbreak of swine influenza that has killed more than 150 people in Mexico and spread to Europe, with cases reported in Spain and Scotland.

While no infections have been reported in Italy so far, experts say that its arrival is only a matter of time.

The foreign ministry has issued an advisory against travelling to Mexico unless strictly necessary. According to the ministry, airport authorities are requiring flights inbound from countries which have registered infections to report passengers or crew with flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue).

There are five direct flights per day between destinations in Mexico and Rome, in addition to three flights per week between Mexico and Milan. On 28 April Italian travel operators reported that up to 70 per cent of tourists who had paid for holidays in Mexico were requesting refunds or a change of destination.

The health ministry says that it is monitoring the situation closely and that the health system is well prepared to deal with an outbreak of the virus. In the meantime, the ministry has set up a toll-free hotline (tel. 1500, between 08.00 and 20.00) to provide information on health and travel.

Swine flu refers to a strain of influenza endemic to pigs which has mutated to become infectious to humans. Like most strains of influenza it is spread by exposure to bodily fluids such as mucous and saliva.

The World Health Organisation says a vaccine for the current strain of swine flu could take up to six months to become available on a large scale, though the virus does respond to four common antiviral drugs.

Apart from avoiding areas where the virus is present, precautionary measures are the same as for the common cold: avoid crowded areas and wash hands frequently.