Avian flu in Bangladesh is overshadowed by developments elsewhere on the Indian sub-continent with perpetual outbreaks in poultry expanding into a suspected nine-person human disease cluster in North-West Frontier province (NWFP) Pakistan during December 2007. Bangladesh is still battered by highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) 10 months after first outbreak in February 2007 around the capital Dhaka in the centre of Bangladesh. The virus subsequently spread alarmingly to affect 20 districts, mainly in the north of the country.
By end of 2007, more than 275,000 birds had been culled and three million eggs destroyed. Early November outbreaks in northern Bangladesh at Dinajpur, Jaipurhat and Lalmonirhat districts required a cull of 6000 birds. They were followed by one in Pabna district, also Rajshahi division and further cull of 5000, and re-occurrence in Dinjapur district 420km north of Dhaka in late December.
These latest outbreaks in three districts close to the border with West Bengal state in India are exactly where H5N1 exploded in June 2007. Pabna district – 160km north of Dhaka – is a newly affected area, showing H5N1 is still spreading to previously unaffected areas as well as consolidating its grip elsewhere.
International organisations are worried about deteriorating situation. United Nations recently listed Bangladesh as one of six countries where HPAI virus strain H5N1 is now endemic in poultry. There has already been a huge loss of birds but UN veterinarian, Abdul Kalam Azad, based in the capital Dhaka told IRIN, “Indirect losses to farmers far surpass any direct loss.” Many farms have downsized operations, resulting in significant staff lay-offs, and farm equipment sales are hit hard. The whole industry in Bangladesh worth at least US$2 billion is in a very nervous state,” he added.
Additional worry surrounded migratory birds arriving in their hundreds of thousands during November, including wild waterfowl from Siberian Russia, where the virus is known to be lodged in wild bird populations. “The winter months are therefore likely to see even more outbreaks,” warned A.S.M. Alamgir, a virologist at the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research.
Looking at Bangladesh, it is easy to see why H5N1 gained such a firm foothold so quickly. This relatively small country is no bigger than the US state of Iowa but the high population is equivalent to almost 800 persons per square kilometre. The country was building up a modern and closely integrated poultry industry alongside a huge backyard poultry population.
Biman Poultry Complex – the first poultry production unit confirmed with H5N1 on 23 March 2007 – was supplying day-old-chicks to farms all over the country. Local media claimed the virus was spreading for weeks if not months beforehand, so there was no way back for Bangladesh once the virus established. Biman in the district of Dhaka dispatched over 100,000 chicks to 58 farms all over Bangladesh between 4 February and 3 March 2007. The ‘Biman outbreak’ actually started on 22 February, a whole month before it was announced on 23 March, according to dates posted by Bangladesh on the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) log of outbreaks.
Figures for poultry and people in Bangladesh are staggering. There are around 2.4 million rural women who depend on backyard chicken as their only source of livelihood, alongside 100,000 small and medium-sized farms. “Behaviour does not change overnight,” said Habibur Rahman at Bangladesh University talking to IRIN. “Most of these farms do not maintain the necessary sanitary and preventative measures essential for keeping chicken safe from infection,” he said.
Bangladesh clearly needs help forthcoming from International Development Association, the World Bank’s concessionary arm, which signed an agreement with the Bangladesh government in July 2007 to minimise the effects of HPAI. The ‘Avian Influenza Preparedness and Response Project’ is supporting the government’s ‘National Avian Influenza and Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan’. It is designed to manage avian flu in domestic poultry while simultaneously formulating plans to avoid human infections and respond appropriately should they occur. The project is initially co-financed by a US$2 million grant from the World Bank’s Avian and Human Influenza Fund, which is supported by nine donors (including the European Commission) and administered by the World Bank.
The alternative is grim. H5N1 continues to bed down in Bangladesh, while festering in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma). The latest H5N1 outbreak there was in north-east Shan state in November 2007. It was introduced by a duck dealer who bought 900 birds on the China-Myanmar border and caused the loss of 15,000 ducks, geese and chickens, followed by Myanmar’s first human case (also in Shan) one month later.
Wider implications involve India, which has long and difficult north-eastern borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar, now coupled with an increasingly threatening situation on its north-western borders with Pakistan. If H5N1 is not managed, India could end up in the same position as Vietnam trying to stop H5N1 entering the country from contiguous countries where the disease is endemic.
India is not standing idly by. According to The Times of India, the Indian government has drawn up an action plan to deal with an avian flu emergency. There is ongoing training of India’s 70,000 veterinarians from the department of animal husbandry in the handling of poultry, and close monitoring of unusually high mortality levels poultry flocks. Laboratories with Bio Safety Level (BSPL) III credentials will be established in Jalandhar, Kolkata, Pune and north-east India to test poultry samples for avian flu virus. The department of animal husbandry has reserved 40 million doses of poultry vaccine in case the country decides to vaccinate poultry against H5N1.