Around 100,000 poultry birds have been culled in West Bengal since Wednesday as the dreaded bird flu virus engulfed five districts, and the state government staved off criticism over its handling of the crisis.
"We have culled around 100,000 birds in the first four days and the culling operation is on in full swing. Now we have 250 Rapid Response Teams, each team comprising five people," West Bengal Animal Resource Development Minister Anisur Rahman told IANS.
The state had set a target of slaughtering 400,000 poultry birds but with the spread of the disease to new areas at least 200,000 more birds might now have to be killed.
The five districts are Birbhum, South Dinajpur, Murshidabad, Nadia and Burdwan with the last two being the latest to join the dubious list of H5N1 affected areas.
The minister said the culling was almost complete in Balurghat in South Dinajpur, about 375 kms from Kolkata.
Reacting to the central government's criticism of the measures taken in West Bengal, Rahman said that the flu outbreak in Maharashtra in 2006 was in a farm. "But here you have to deal with poultry birds in backyards. In many places, the villagers consider the poultry as part of their family and do not want to part with them," he said.
"We are doing our best going by the fact that something like this has happened for the first time in the state," Rahman said.
Laboratory tests in Bhopal have confirmed the spread of the disease in Mangalkot and Purbasthali in Burdwan and Tehatta in Nadia. It was also confirmed that the poultry deaths in Murshidabad district's Khargram and Baroa were also from the virus.
The first two districts are in southern West Bengal and barely 200 kms from Kolkata.
Union Minister of State for Health Panabaka Lakshmi had said in Kolkata on Saturday: "We are not satisfied (with the measures to combat bird flu in West Bengal)." Although she did not specify where the state was lacking, she alleged that the compensation paid to poultry owners was not properly distributed.
In a statement in New Delhi, the agriculture ministry said on Saturday: "Samples from four blocks of Murshidabad district (Khargram, Burwan, Nowda and Nabagram), one block of Nadia district (Tehatta) and two blocks of Burdwan district (Mongalkote and Purbasthali) have been found positive for avian influenza by rapid tests."
However, the samples from Kolkata's adjoining South 24 Parganas, Cooch Behar (north Bengal), Purulia (southwestern Bengal) and Hooghly (closer to Kolkata) districts have tested negative for avian influenza. Results of the samples sent from Bankura district are awaited from the HSADL (High Security Animal Disease Laboratory), Bhopal.
Till Saturday about 96,010 poultry deaths were reported in Birbhum, South Dinajpur, Murshidabad, Nadia, South 24-Parganas, Burdwan and Bankura districts.
Meanwhile, the forest department has decided to monitor thousands of migratory birds that visit the state every winter from Siberia and East Europe.
More officials have been posted at Santragachi Lake in Howrah, 10 kms from Kolkata, where thousands of migratory birds have arrived since October.
The state government has allocated Rs 30 million as compensation for those losing their poultry birds, Rahman said.
Farmers were being handed over tokens at culling sites and asked to contact their panchayat or village block offices for the money. The payment is Rs 40 for a country chicken, Rs 30 for a broiler and Rs 10 for a chick.
While the minister claimed that culling operations had been stepped up, reports from the districts said the process was slow, often due to villagers resisting the health workers carrying out the cull.
But in areas where a large number of poultry birds had died of the infection, the villagers were more eager to offer their chickens and ducks for culling.
The H5N1 virus causes a type of influenza in birds that is highly contagious and can be deadly. It does not usually infect people unless they come in close contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces.