Handling the avian flu crisis | HT Editorial
2021 has started with an unprecedented bird flu epidemic in India, causing the death of thousands of wild and poultry birds in 10 states and bleeding the fast-growing poultry industry for a second time over the past year. In March-April 2020, the industry was hit by a 68-day lockdown and industries expected to recover the losses during the winter months. Prices of poultry products, the fastest growing segments of the agriculture sector, has dipped by 40-60 % in the past week as bird flu has spread from Pong Dam in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the first cases were reported in the last week of December, to Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.
Migratory birds from faraway countries in the northern hemisphere such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan are said to have brought the virus to India in the 24th such instance since 2004. More than half of the world’s bird flu incidents take place in the Central Asian Flyway (CAF) that covers almost the entire Indian subcontinent, according to World Health Organization (WHO). Close to 90% of birds, migrating through the flyway, visit India’s wintering sites and some of them may be carriers of various avian diseases. The bird flu spreads through their droppings, contaminating the water bodies they visit. The death of crows in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarkhand and ducks in Kerala show that the virus spread from the cross-border migratory birds to the domestic ones and eventually to the poultry. The Bhopal-based National Institute for High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD) confirmed this as it found same strain Avian Influenza (H5N8) in migratory and domestic birds.
Experts say preventing bird flu is not possible as little research has been done on the virus-carrying capability of migratory birds in CAF. However, the spread can be contained if there is early sharing of information between the 29 CAF countries. For instance, the first bird flu death in the flyway was reported from the breeding sites in China in October-November, indicating that the disease was coming to India. Conservation and protection of migratory birds and their sites are covered under the Convention for Conservation of Migratory Species of Animals (CMS) but their health aspects are not. The United Nations and WHO should work with countries in the CAF region for disease surveillance of the migratory birds and India should do more sample checks at the wintering sites to catch the disease early.