Reports in the media and on the authoritative PROMED Web site attest to the magnitude and extent of the current Highly Pathogenic H5N1 Avian Influenza outbreak (HPAI) in West Bengal State (and possibly others) bordering Bangladesh. The reports of a confused, uncoordinated and obviously unplanned response are unacceptable. We read of midnight raids on backyards to confiscate and kill poultry, leaving villagers to bury or otherwise dispose of dead and culled flocks and inadequate compensation programs. The rapid extension from the border areas to encompass 13 of 19 districts in West Bengal indicates that quarantine measures have been ineffective to date. The acute nature of the situation is contrasted with the statements of officials who have indicated the need to erect three new “diagnostic laboratories” to reinforce the surveillance program and  the usual requests for international aid. Other officials including the Animal Resources Minister Anisur Rahaman are concerned about the possibility of mutation of the virus to become infective to humans.

It is inconceivable that veterinary and public health authorities in the State have not gained from the experience of other nations in Asia confronted with HPAI. The disease was present in neighboring Bangladesh for months with every prospect of extension across a porous border. One would have expected the creation of contingency plans to deal with HPAI. Why were there no trained vaccinated culling teams? Where was the predetermined fair compensation plan for owners of poultry with appropriate education and communication? What measures were implemented to detect early cases and to respond to disease outbreaks? Given the present emergency it is fatuous to speak of “building laboratories”.  Have the Veterinarians responsible for policy not heard of field deployable solid-state antigen detection kits which could be airlifted in within days?

Based on experience gained during the past five years there is little immediate likelihood of HPAI extending to the population at large. The risk however relates to the number and geographic spread of flocks that are infected, the duration of the outbreak and the degree of contact between bird owners, culling teams and dead and dying poultry disseminating influenza virus. The quicker this infection is “contained” the lower is the possibility of human involvement. The term “contained” is used advisedly. In all probability the infection will or has become endemic in the population of subsistence poultry which will serve as a reservoir for the virus. The live bird marketing system involving tiers of middlemen participating in trading, transport and distribution will predispose to persistence of infection. If, as is anticipated, farmers resort to clandestine application of bootleg vaccines and non compliance with officials, the ongoing process of surveillance and control will be severely compromised.