Avian flu spreads like fire through West Bengal

Scale and severity of the latest H5N1 outbreaks are becoming apparent, and control is further hampered by ignorance of the threat to human health.

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28 January 2008; United Kingdom—The virus spread through West Bengal like fire, confirming fears that the H5N1 strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus had circulated in poultry for some time after crossing the border with Bangladesh but before confirmation in India. Central government blamed West Bengal State authorities for not spotting first signs of the outbreak, which Times of India (TOI) said appeared a month earlier. Villagers in Birbhum told reporters that chickens had died in large numbers in mid-December 2007, claiming that the health department, the animal resources department or the panachayats (elected local government councils) had no idea it was happening.

Bangladesh border was sealed but the damage was already done. India’s animal husbandry secretary, Pradeep Kumar, said sealing borders does little to limit the disease’s spread. “Birds don’t observe borders,” he said, before urging greater cross-border co-operation in controlling the disease.

Rapid spread since first outbreaks

First confirmed outbreaks starting 15 January were in Birbhum, South Dinajpur and Murshidabad districts. By 23 January, H5N1 had been confirmed in six more: Nadia, Burdwan, Bankura, Malda, Hooghly and Cooch Behar. Three days later, outbreaks were also confirmed in the southern Purulia district that juts out into neighbouring Bihar and Howrah adjoining the district of Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta), clearly putting the state capital at risk. Disease was now confirmed in 11 out of 19 districts of West Bengal and has killed at least 200,000 birds.

TOI reported high mortality from Darjeeling in the north and Midnapore in the south, suggesting the whole of West Bengal was riddled with H5N1. Poultry were dropping like flies in Jalpaiguri district, along India's northern border with Bhutan, which banned poultry imports. Since H5N1 was already confirmed in districts like Howrah and Nadia, that include some of Kolkata’s suburbs, it was difficult not to believe that the state capital’s urban sprawl (15 million people) if not Kolkata city itself (5 million) was already infected.

H5N1 continued to take its toll in Bangladesh with 5000 birds killed in Natore, a previously unaffected district. Experts in Bangladesh told the international press how the situation was worse than realised and that the government was trying to cover up incidence and spread of the virus.

West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, said that the situation there was “alarming,” claiming there was no alternative but to speed up culling operations. The West Bengal authorities had originally set a seven-day deadline for culling around 400,000 birds. Culling started slowly at just 20,000 birds per day for the first five days while numbers requiring slaughter moved relentlessly upward.

Massive culling programme

H5N1 was spreading out of control and the cull began to resemble a never-ending operation. “The numbers of those engaged in culling work has to be increased substantially and we will have to kill nearly 400,000 birds in the affected areas at the earliest,” Bhattacharjee told The Hindu. On 22 January, West Bengal government set themselves the daunting task of culling two million birds in the next seven days although previous week’s total was barely 200,000. Within 24 hours, the target cull was 2.5 million and rising.

Culling teams were increased from 300 to 400 backed up by 100 experts from the Animal Husbandry Department in Assam but this was still not enough. “We don't have the infrastructure to battle this epidemic,” said Anisur Rahman talking to Associated Free Press (AFP). “Bird flu is spreading to new areas and thousands of chickens are dropping dead every day and we have asked neighbouring states to send at least 1000 veterinarians and medical doctors,” said Rahaman.

Farmers uncooperative

Culling teams encountered practical problems and in some cases, real resistance from villagers. Backyard birds were running around everywhere difficult to catch and heavy unseasonal rain turned roads and tracks into quagmires and prevented teams from reaching farms. Culling came to a halt in some areas on 20 January as Muslims observing the first Islamic month of Muharram refused to hand over birds for culling. The biggest poultry farm (30,000 birds) at Margram in Birbhum district and site of the first confirmed outbreak, avoided culling because the owner locked up the premises. A five-member culling team was physically attacked on the same day by angry villagers near Margram.

Culling had only begun in areas confirmed with H5N1 but Central Government then asked West Bengal to cull poultry even where the virus was only suspected, claiming that time was of the essence in containing the outbreak. Agriculture and Food Minister, Sharad Pawar, told TOI that preventive and prophylactic culling would only be launched in areas reporting high and unusual mortality. “In such a situation, we won't wait for confirmation of bird flu because it is spreading to nearby districts. We took the decision not to wait for reports from the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory (HSADL) in Bhopal which takes seven days.”

Finance Department clearly feared the worst and reportedly allocated US$15 million in compensation for farmers and citizens forced to forfeit poultry and products across the state. Apparently this was not enough because many villagers were refusing to hand over poultry to veterinary staff for culling, saying government compensation, equivalent less than US$1 per bird, was not enough.

Villagers in Birbhum told reporters how they sold sick and dead birds for human consumption. “Most of the chickens [in Margram] died in the past fortnight,” said a resident of the village talking to an AFP photographer. “People here sold the dead chickens as meat for 10 rupees (US$0.25) a kilo. There are very few chickens left and most of the birds killed [culled] by the [veterinary] officers are ducks,” according to the report by AFP.

South Dinajpur district, where over half an estimated 55,000 chickens were affected, opened 26 centres for culling birds including seven in the Balurghat municipality. According to The Statesman, people did not come forward and chicken was still on sale in markets throughout the district. Allegations flew that the district administration had failed to discharge its duties and vehicles arriving from Bangladesh were not being disinfected.

West Bengal animal resources development minister, Anisur Rahaman, told Reuters how lack of co-operation from villagers was slowing down culling and putting public health at risk. “Villagers are resisting culling operations. Chickens are on sale despite a ban and reports of poultry deaths from new places keep coming,” he added.

Outside India, the World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed the outbreak could turn out be one of the worst H5N1 epidemics ever. United States Consul-General in Kolkata, H.V. Jardine, said his country would consider any request for help if the West Bengal State government approached the US embassy.

People in danger

Sharad Pawar told The Statesman there were no reports of any human infection due to avian influenza but if the hundreds of reports coming out of West Bengal were true, it was more through luck than judgement. West Bengal health services director, Sanchita Baksi, claimed poultry owners were throwing chicken carcasses into rivers and ponds, thereby increasing the risk of virus spread through water, “In some areas, villagers are feasting on dead chickens and reluctant to disclose if there are birds in their backyards,” she said.

“Thousands of people are in danger,” warned Ms Baksi confirming that local hostility to government was hampering the cull. “We are worried over reports that crows and hawks are dropping dead in some bird-flu affected areas and we are trying to tell the people not to touch any birds lying in those places. Volunteers were telling villagers just how dangerous the H5N1 virus is and of the strict precautions that had to be taken,” she said. Continued reports of unexplained deaths amongst birds of prey like owls and hawks, scavengers like corvids (crows) and dogs heightened concerns. Ignorance of the disease was clearly putting whole communities at risk.

Anisur Rahaman told AFP how the situation affected areas was “horrible”, and how authorities must accelerate the cull. “The ignorance of villagers is one of the main hurdles. They are carrying dead chickens without any protective gear.” Most villagers are not aware of the disease. They are eating the dead chickens. Their children are playing with the infected chickens on the courtyards. He told Reuters how smiling children were seen holding up dead birds with bare hands for television cameras.

WHO said the outbreak looked far more serious than previous Indian outbreaks and on the evidence, none could disagree. By 26 January, the minimum required cull of 2.5 million birds was more than double final total for Maharashtra in 2006. Sharad Pawar tried to reassure markets, claiming the disease had not affected India’s domestic and overseas poultry market much. “There is no major impact on the market,” said Pawar, but all indications indicated otherwise.

Indian government authorities had clearly moved as quickly as possible once the West Bengal outbreak was confirmed and by 27 January, around 1000 teams were working with around 1.5 million birds already culled. In some areas, cull targets were actually brought down because so many birds had died already.

As happened in Bangladesh in February 2007, it appears the H5N1 virus had free rein to spread for at least one month in West Bengal before being picked up, identified and confirmed. Delay is the main reason why Bangladesh has always been one step behind this fast moving all-consuming disease of birds, and why the virus is now endemic in Bangladesh with little prospect of eradication. 
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