Published in The Hindu on January 17, 2008
The fresh bird flu outbreak in two districts of West Bengal has come a month after India declared itself bird flu-free in New Delhi during the International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza and became a donor to fight bird flu for the first time. The last outbreak was in 2006 at Navapur in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra when several thousand birds were killed by the virus. The latest outbreak reported from farms in a village in West Bengal, which has been confirmed by the Bhopal based laboratory to be the widely prevalent H5H1 strain, has already killed nearly 35,000 birds in the past one week. The government has ordered to culling of all birds within a radius of five kilometres to contain the spread of the virus and to look out for possible human infections. With the outbreak seen mostly in backyard poultry, the success of the culling operations will largely depend on the timely compensation offered to owners. It is comforting that a door-to-door inspection of people with suspected symptoms of bird flu has already been undertaken. How well the authorities succeed in containing the spread and preventing any human infection would indicate the robustness of the government’s “full-fledged action plan to combat avian influenza pandemic when and if it strikes.” Only a timely containment would help prevent a bird flu panic, which was seen a few years ago. As a result of the greater preparedness, unlike in 2006 when the outbreak was initially dismissed as some kind of a chicken malady, the cause of death this time has been confirmed unequivocally. While containment is the immediate priority, the task of identifying the strain and comparing it with those collected from earlier outbreaks to check for any mutation is equally important.
Though precise information on the route of virus transmission is not known, there is a strong possibility that the bird flu has come from Bangladesh. The H5N1 avian virus first reported near Dhaka in March last year has since been spreading and has affected 23 of the 64 districts of Bangladesh so far. Though migratory birds have been largely responsible for long distance transmission of the virus, the outbreak in the two districts in West Bengal is likely to have come directly from infected chicken. Though it has been well documented that movement of men and material carrying the virus is sufficient for the spread of H5N1, trading of birds across the international border continued and appears to be the most likely route of virus transmission. Immediate measures have to be taken to avoid such movement of birds, especially when avian flu is still prevalent in Bangladesh, if serious outbreaks are to be avoided in the States bordering Bangladesh. This is important as Bangladesh, which has been unable to stop the spread of the disease for the last ten months, may well have let the virus become deeply entrenched among its bird population.