India on Tuesday mounted efforts to contain the spread of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus - which it has successfully fought twice in recent times - in West Bengal, putting in place from Wednesday a slew of precautionary measures, including the culling of poultry.
"The Bhopal-based High Security Animal Disease Laboratory (HSADL) has confirmed the outbreak, and we have sent 60 rapid response teams to the state for the initial ground work," said Pradip Kumar, secretary of the animal husbandry department in the ministry of agriculture.
He said the disease was "confined to only two districts" and mostly to backyard poultry.
Widespread death of poultry birds was reported from parts of Birbhum and South Dinajpur districts over the past 10 days. Thousands of backyard poultry in Birbhum region have died, prompting district authorities to sound an alert.
"Fresh deaths of poultry have not been reported in West Bengal and due alerts have been sounded," Kumar said.
Health Secretary Naresh Dayal said human health surveillance will start soon.
Kumar, however, did not agree with a suggestion the virus had come from Myanmar and Bangladesh. "No, I cannot say that."
He added that adequate manpower and medicines have been made available to the state government.
"We have given required directions and it's up to the state government when they start the culling operation," Kumar told reporters after a joint monitoring group meeting of the agriculture ministry and health ministry in the capital.
"A detailed plan has been prepared for the culling operation. Funds are also available for the affected farmers. Fresh deaths of poultry have not been reported in West Bengal and due alerts have been sounded," Kumar said.
Dayal said: "An adequate number of masks has been given to West Bengal. In case the state needs more masks, these will be air-lifted."
"So far 36,000 Tamiflu tablets have been despatched to West Bengal. We are in touch with the state government and they have drawn a contingency plan as envisaged by us," Dayal added.
Top officials of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the department of animal husbandry had Monday rushed to the affected area.
In Kolkata, West Bengal Animal Resources Development Minister Anisur Rahman said: "We will start culling Wednesday after a notification Tuesday. We just got the confirmation but the machinery of the state health department was already in action.
"We have reports of 20,000 birds dying in just one week. While the deaths mainly occurred in southwestern Birbhum district's Margram village area there are reports of poultry birds dying in South Dinajpur district in north Bengal too. Culling would take place in both areas," he said.
"I cannot tell you now exactly how many birds would be culled," Rahman told IANS.
"Two blocks of Birbhum district - Rampurhat I and II - are affected. In South Dinajpur bird flu was found in Balurghat area," he said.
"We will take all measures but we are urging the people of the state not to panic unnecessarily," he said.
Reports of poultry bird deaths also poured in from adjoining Murshidabad district.
Earlier, a door-to-door inspection of people with suspected symptoms of avian influenza began in Margram village Tuesday.
More than 20,000 chickens have died in Margram, about 280 km from here.
"We are sending our workers door to door in the affected region to find out if anyone was having fever above 98 degrees or having breathing trouble or is afflicted with pneumonia. After a survey and monitoring we would be able to say if there are any cases among humans (of infection)," Birbhum chief medical officer Sunil Kumar Bhowmick said.
"We will keep an eye on people who were in direct contact with the infected birds," he said.
"All chickens within a five-kilometre radius of the affected area will have to be killed. The government will compensate the owners," Birbhum District Magistrate Tapan Kumar Som said earlier.
Selling and buying chickens have been already banned in Rampurhat I and II and the Rampurhat municipal area in Birbhum.
The virus causes a type of influenza in birds that is highly contagious among them and can be deadly. It does not usually infect people unless they come in close contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces.
This is not the first time bird flu has broken out in India.
In 2006, the spread of the H5N1 virus was confirmed in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra.
Chingmeirong village of near Manipur's state capital Imphal had witnessed the bird flu outbreak in July 2007.
After the culling of a large number of birds and other preventive measures in both cases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had last year declared India "free from bird flu".