It is good to see health authorities in West Bengal tackle the outbreak of bird flu in the state on a war footing. They have even sealed its borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal to contain the spread of the disease. This suggests that lessons have been learnt from outbreaks in 2006, when the spread of the H5N1 virus was confirmed in Maharashtra, and later in Manipur. A large number of birds had to be culled and other preventive measures taken before the World Health Organisation could finally declare India ‘bird flu-free’ last year. This time round, as soon as the Bhopal-based High Security Animal Disease Laboratory confirmed the outbreak in the districts of Birbhum and West Dinajpur, rapid response teams cordoned off the affected areas to prevent the virus from spreading. This, along with the culling operations underway, should ensure the epidemic is contained before it gets out of control.
The big question now is to find out if the chickens were infected with the H5 strain of bird flu, or if it is also the dangerous N1 subtype inflicting damage. The H5N1 virus has plagued scores of countries, forcing the slaughter of hundreds of millions of birds since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in the late 2003. It now haunts several countries like Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria, and has killed over 200 people worldwide. The influenza caused by the H5N1 virus in birds is contagious only among them and usually does not infect people, unless they come in close contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces. The problem is that if the virus actually mutates into a form that spreads easily among humans, it could potentially set off a pandemic that would be very difficult to contain.
Measures like culling are only just a good first line of defence. This could be undermined in the absence of a sensitive surveillance system that can detect the emerging strains of a pandemic virus. So, the importance of having adequate infrastructure — better healthcare facilities and a district-wise surveillance system — cannot be overstated.