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Bird flu hits India

40,000 chickens have died in Maharashtra the past week no human cases so far

india Updated: Feb 25, 2006 18:57 IST
Sanchita Sharma and HT Correspondents
Sanchita Sharma and HT Correspondents

Bird flu has struck India. Nearly 40,000 chickens have died in farms in the Navapur tehsil of Maharashtra's Nandurbar district over the past week. The central goverment's hi-tech High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal has confirmed that eight birds from Navapur were killed by the H5N1 strain of the bird flu.

Though no human cases have been reported, a team of scientists and doctors from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in Delhi and the National Institute of Immunology (NIV) in Pune is doing door-to-door surveys in Nandurbar to determine if anyone has been in close contact with the birds or has symptoms. Blood samples of five people from the area have been sent to NIV and the results are expected by Monday.

Even as the Union cabinet secretary met the secretaries of the home, health, animal husbandry, environment and agriculture ministries to re view contingency plans to stop the virus from spreading, Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar ordered action. Each of the estimated three lakh chickens in the 10 sq km area where the virus was found will be exterminated. "There is no option" Pawar said.

"I have ordered them to cordon off a 10-km radius area and kill all the birds. The central and state governments will compensate farmers for their losses." Uttam Khobragade, Maharashtra's animal husbandry secretary, said nearly 40,000 chicken had died "over the past 7-10 days", but the deaths had been put down to a viral infection called Ranikhet. District officials in Nandurbar were, however, putting a date to the beginning of the outbreak: February 8.

"Birds are dying everywhere," said a farmer from Navapur of his village of 35,000 people. "The disease is spreading like wildfire. The poultry industry looks set to be completely wiped out in this area," said a junior government official on the spot.
Since it was first detected in poultry in Asia in 2003, the H5N1 bird flu virus has infected 169 people and killed 91 in Turkey, Iraq, Nigeria, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. And the virus is spreading among humans: in 2006 alone, 25 cases and 15 deaths have been reported in humans, up from 3 cases — all of whom died — in 2003.

Is India prepared to deal with a disease outbreak? Health minister Anbumani Ramadoss says contingency plans are in place. "The Centre has boosted surveillance, set up containment measures and treatment guidelines, identified district hospitals for treatment, and procured anti-viral drugs. India has also procured antivirals through the WHO, while Indian pharmaceutical companies are also developing these drugs in India," says health minister Anbumani Ramadoss. The animal husbandry department is already doing random checks of birds for H5N1 by collecting blood samples of poultry from markets and sending it for testing.

Union health ministry officials say there is no need to panic. "The only confirmed cases reported till now have been in people who have been in close contact with bird secretions and excretions. Till now, no human to human transmission has taken place anywhere in the world, and we're currently making sure no one has been infected in Maharashtra," says the official.

But the influenza virus' ability to mutate easily has WHO experts worry that the H5N1 pandemic will happen once person-to-person transmission starts. "Of the few avian influenza viruses that have crossed the species barrier to infect humans, H5N1 has caused the most severe disease and death in people, killing over half of those infected," says a public health expert at the WHO South East Asia Region.

(With inputs from Shailesh Gaikwad and Maria Abraham in Mumbai, K.S. Manojkumar in Aurangabad and Sravani Sarkar in Bhopal)

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