States on alert as bird flu spreads, toll soars
The central government confirmed on Wednesday that avian influenza, or bird flu, cases were reported across 12 epicentres in at least four Indian states even as authorities issued advisories to contain further spread of the outbreak and asked all states to keep a close vigil to detect any unusual bird death.
Thousands of birds have died in Kerala (mostly poultry), Himachal Pradesh (migratory birds), and Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (crows) since the beginning of the outbreak in December-end. Officials said migratory birds are behind the outbreak.
The government said it has set up a “control room” in New Delhi to keep a watch on the situation. No case among humans has been reported.
In addition to the four states with confirmed cases, around 400,000 chickens have died in Haryana’s Panchkula district over the past 20 days. Similarly, three crows are suspected to have died due to the disease in Uttarakhand’s capital Dehradun. Their test reports were awaited. Jharkhand and Gujarat, too, have sounded an alarm.
The Union health ministry said it has deployed special teams in Panchkula, apart from Kerala’s two epicentres.
Experts said the current outbreak is caused by the H5N8 strain, though there are other strains circulating globally. A series of outbreaks have been reported in Europe in the past weeks, with wild birds suspected to be spreading the disease.
Experts added that both H5N1 (another strain of avian influenza) and H5N8 have high pathogenicity (the ability of a pathogen to cause disease), but they don’t infect humans very effectively. However, past outbreaks among farm birds have needed extensive slaughtering programmes.
“…people who are handling birds (culling them or handling meat) should be careful and take full precautions. If it does transmit to humans, the influenza can be very severe...Human-to-human transmission is also not common, but can happen. Eating properly cooked poultry is unlikely to transmit the infection. We have had several bird flu episodes in the past but managed to control them,” said Dr Shobha Broor, former head of the department of microbiology at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
The current outbreak began barely a few months after India declared the country free from the disease on September 30, 2020. India notified the first outbreak of avian influenza in 2006.
“Bird flu cases can be found all over the world. India was declared free of bird flu in September. Then in October, we issued an advisory that the cold is coming and that there is a need to take precautions. Today, most of the cases are being reported from the places where migratory birds arrive, and they are the reason for bringing the virus to the country,” Giriraj Singh, the Union minister of fisheries, animal husbandry and dairying, told news agency ANI.
“The government is on alert. Samples from all states are being sent to Bhopal (for testing at the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases). There is nothing to worry about. The government will also provide compensation to the farmers for the poultry that died,” Singh said.
In a statement, his ministry identified 12 disease epicentres: Baran, Kota, Jhalawar regions in Rajasthan; Mandsaur, Indore, Malwa areas in Madhya Pradesh; Kangra in Himachal Pradesh; and Kerala’s Kottayam and Alappuzha (four epicentres).
In India, the ministry said, the disease spreads mainly by migratory birds during winter months from September-October to February-March. The secondary spread by human handling (through fomites) cannot be ruled out.
“Infection in humans is not yet reported in India though the disease is zoonotic. There is no direct evidence that AI (avian influenza) viruses can be transmitted to humans via the consumption of contaminated poultry products,” it added.
Over 69,000 birds, including ducks and chickens, were culled in Alappuzha and Kottayam, Kerala animal husbandry minister K Raju said on Wednesday. His government has declared bird flu as a state disaster. Rapid response teams are on the ground for culling and surveillance efforts.
“The state cabinet, which met today (Wednesday), has decided to compensate the farmers for culling their birds. For culled birds over two months old, farmers will be given ₹200 for each… for those under the age of two months, farmers will be compensated at ₹100 for each,” the minister said.
Madhya Pradesh has banned transportation of poultry from other states as a measure to check the spread, government officials said. “Testing of poultry samples from districts affected by bird flu suggests poultry is not affected, but as a precautionary measure, the Mandsaur district administration has ordered a ban on the sale and purchase of chicken and eggs... 250 crows have been found dead so far in the district,” said JN Kansotia, the state’s animal husbandry principal secretary.
In Himachal, there was a complete ban on the sale and export of poultry products and fish in the four subdivisions of Dehra, Fatehpur, Jawali and Indora, according to Kangra deputy commissioner Rakesh Kumar Prajapati. “We can’t stop it (movement of migratory birds); it will continue till February-end,” said Prajapati.
Panchkula civil surgeon Dr Jasjeet Kaur said six screening teams were sent to the worst-hit Barwala belt, considered Asia’s second largest poultry belt with over 7.7 million birds in 110 farms. Across states, poultry farm owners feared losses due to the culling of birds --- a likely outcome of the outbreak.
“I have more than 40,000 chickens at my farm. If the virus spreads, culling would be carried out and that would mean losses worth lakhs or rupees,” said Pushp Barotia, a poultry farm owner in Kangra.
The scare has led to a drop in chicken prices in many parts of the country. Annu Gulati, an office-bearer of the Uttar Pradesh Poultry Farm Association, said prices have come down to ₹20-25 per kg.