Avian epidemic

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

West Bengal suffers Indias worst bird flu attack, which takes a heavy toll on backyard poultry and rural livelihoods.

in Kolkata

It is ironical that bird flu should deal a crippling blow to the West Bengal countryside shortly after the Government of India declared that the country was free from the scourge. From January 3, when hens and ducks began to die at an alarming rate in Margram village under Rampurhat Block II of Birbhum district in central Bengal, the State was staring at what is possibly the biggest outbreak in India so far of avian influenza caused by the H5N1 virus. West Bengal is the fifth State in the country to have been struck by the virus after Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Manipur.

As of January 25, the disease had spread to 39 blocks and four municipalities in 11 districts, killing over 1.3 lakh fowls; a total of 934 teams had culled 10.11 lakh hens and ducks against a target of a little over 21 lakh, and the rate of culling had increased to three lakh birds a day.

Almost at the same time as the outbreak in Birbhum, South Dinajpur district in north Bengal also got affected. Though we were monitoring the situation, we were not sure if it was indeed bird flu that had affected backyard poultry in the two districts. It is not uncommon for birds to fall ill during winter, and it could well have been Ranikhet (an avian disease), a State government official told Frontline.

On January 8, bird samples were sent to the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal and the National Institute of Virology in Pune. By January 15, when preliminary and final tests confirmed that it was indeed the highly dangerous H5N1 strain of avian influenza that had affected the two districts, the virus had spread to five blocks and one municipality in Birbhum and a State-run poultry farm in Balurghat, South Dinajpur, killing close to 40,000 birds. Reports also started flowing in of an outbreak in Murshidabad district, which shares its border with Bangladesh.

We suspected that the results would be positive and we had prepared ourselves beforehand, West Bengal Animal Resources Development Minister Anisur Rahaman told Frontline. Upon confirmation, the government machinery immediately swung into action. It set up highway checkpoints to prevent poultry movement from affected areas, warned residents of the areas against eating chicken and eggs, and sealed the Bangladesh border to prevent the entry of poultry products as a similar strain of virus had been reported beyond the border.

The virus hit backyard poultry and this made it difficult initially for the State government to bring the situation under control. According to Anisur Rahaman, roughly 80 per cent of the people living in rural Bengal keep hens and ducks in their houses to supplement their income. Their number is enormous and they are spread over a large area. A Central team led by the Joint Commissioner of the Union Agriculture Ministry rushed to the State, and culling operations by 49 rapid response teams began on January 16.

On January 17, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee chaired a high-level meeting in Kolkata, where a broad strategy was chalked out. The Central government Commissioner for Animal Resource Development, S. Bandopadhyay, was also present.

All panchayat bodies were asked to generate awareness among people in the affected regions. Doctors from the Association of Health Services offered their full cooperation. The gravity of the situation prompted the Veterinary Association of West Bengal to call off its month-long agitation until the bird flu was brought under control.

By January 17, the situation in Murshidabad worsened as the virus had spread to six districts, affecting around 10 million birds. By the evening of January 19, Bardhaman and Nadia districts also fell prey to the virus, with six blocks in each district being affected. Uday Sarkar, senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and president of the Bardhaman Zilla Parishad, told Frontline that more than 1.35 lakh birds had been affected in Bardhaman district. The following day the virus showed up in Bankura district. On January 22, three blocks in Malda district were affected, and the next day, one block each of Coochbehar district in north Bengal and Hooghly district in the south. On January 25, the virus surfaced in two areas of Purulia and Howrah districts.

With the virus showing up first in Hooghly and then in Howrah, it was practically at Kolkatas doorstep. We have intensified vigil outside the city to ensure that no poultry products from the affected regions enter the city. Kolkata has the advantage of not having backyard poultry that can be affected, a government official said.

By January 25, the spread of the disease, though not completely in check, had been curbed, said officials. It had spread to 39 blocks and four municipalities of 11 districts. By that time the virus had claimed over 1.3 lakh birds and the culling operations more than 10 lakh of a target of over 21 lakh.

Backyard poultry had always been a major contributor in our efforts to promote self-sufficiency among the more backward sections of the States rural population. The bird flu has hit that endeavour badly. Although compensation is being given immediately, considering the reproductive value of the poultry, it is by no means sufficient, Madan Ghosh, senior CPI(M) leader and Member of the State Agriculture Commission, told Frontline.

According to Ghosh, every year since the ninth Plan period the State government distributed at least 10 lakh chicks to the economically backward sections. In 2007, this number increased to 30 lakh. This year we were planning to distribute 50 lakh chicks. But that will not be possible now, he said. He added that until the crisis is met, a proper assessment of the economic impact of the epidemic cannot be made. The loss is substantial, he said.

The panic created by the H5N1 virus took a heavy toll on the poultry market in Kolkata, as chicken, one of the most popular dishes in the city, quickly disappeared from not just domestic shopping lists but also wedding menus and restaurant orders. The price of chicken in the local markets plummeted, but still there were no takers.

From Rs.65 a kg, I have reduced my price to Rs.40, but still there has been no sale for the past 12 days, Bhola, a chicken seller at a market in Kolkatas Salt Lake region, told Frontline. With the demand for chicken going down, there has been a corresponding rise in demand for mutton, the price of which went up from Rs.180 a kg to Rs.200-220 a kg. The price of fish, however, has remained more or less the same.

If big restaurants in the city claimed to have remained largely untouched by the situation, small and medium-sized ones, where chicken is one of the dominant items on the menu, felt the pinch. At Ali Baba, a popular restaurant for middle-class consumers in south Kolkata, business was not as buoyant as it was three weeks earlier. Debraj Bhattacharya, its proprietor, said: While the chicken sales have obviously come down to zero, the overall volume of bills has come down by at least 20 per cent.

The State Health Department, apart from examining each member of the rapid response teams before they headed off for culling operations, also set up isolation wards in all health units in and around the affected zone for the treatment of humans suspected of having contracted the virus.

A top-level source in the State administration said: The affected areas and all areas within a 5-kilometre radius of each affected area are under constant surveillance for symptoms of human contamination, such as respiratory problems accompanied by high fever. At this time of the year a small percentage of people are susceptible to the common influenza, whose symptoms are very similar to the initial symptoms of bird flu.

Suspected cases were removed immediately from their surroundings and placed in isolation wards set up in the nearest subdivisional hospital. Isolation wards were set up in every subdivisional hospital in the affected zone. Blood samples of suspected cases were sent to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, both of which are in Kolkata, and the National Institute of Virology.

As of January 25, 15 such human samples had been tested and, according to West Bengal Health Minister Surya Kanta Mishra, who has been touring every affected district, not a single case had tested positive. If unfortunately a sample is tested positive, then, as per WHO [World Health Organisation] guidelines, it will have to be sent abroad for re-examination, said the top-level source in the administration.

The source of the H5N1 virus has not yet been ascertained. According to a team of Central government experts from the Department of Animal Resource Development, Ministry of Agriculture, who visited West Bengal and held discussions at the highest level, the infection may have been carried into Balurghat of South Dinajpur district by movement of poultry through the highly porous 2,216-km border with Bangladesh, as also by virus carried in the air.

At Haribati village

This may be true for the border districts of South Dinajpur, Murshidabad and Malda, but not for Birbhum district, which shares its border with Bihar and was among the first district to get affected. Said Madan Ghosh: Many of the affected blocks, such as those in the districts of Bankura and Birbhum and even Sagar Dighi block in Murshidabad [where the situation is particularly bad], do not share a border with Bangladesh. It is highly possible that migratory birds have carried the infection and, settling in places where there are a lot of waterbodies, infected other birds.

The State government has invited avian experts from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to monitor the condition of migratory birds in wetlands and in the three bird sanctuaries in Birbhum, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur.

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