Caught unawares

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

A Backyard at Haribati in Murshidabad district. - DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

A Backyard at Haribati in Murshidabad district. - DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

Backyard poultry has been hit badly by the outbreak of bird flu, and the complacent attitude of the Centre has not helped matters.

A Backyard at

BARELY a month after New Delhi communicated to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) on November 7 that India was free from bird flu, the country began to reel under the biggest outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) caused by the deadly virus A (H5N1), or simply H5N1. While the national communication of the continuing spread of the bird flu outbreak in West Bengal having affected 11 districts as the magazine goes to the press to the OIE was made only on January 15, the official date of the first reports of unusual death of poultry, according to the Union Ministry of Agricultures Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries (DAHD), is January 8. Unofficially, of course, according to the media, poultry farmers in Margram village in Birbhum district began to notice poultry deaths around December 18 itself, a few days before Id festival.

In fact, the irony is twice over: in early December the Union Health Ministry and the DAHD hosted the biggest international Inter-ministerial Summit on Avian Influenza in New Delhi. Even as the usual rhetorical statements about the action plan and requisite effective measure being put in place to contain the infection and call for international cooperation were being trotted out by Indian officials, not to mention the international call through the Delhi Declaration, circumstances of the spread of H5N1 from across the border from Bangladesh were getting ready.

According to the media, reports to block development officers (BDOs) and panchayat leaders in the region elicited little response. Seasonal deaths of poultry during this time of the year, caused by diseases such as Ranikhet (or Newcastle disease) are common, and apparently the officials paid no heed to the complaints. However, farmers with medium-sized poultry holdings realised that the deaths were unusual because the numbers involved were larger than the usual Ranikhet-linked mortality.

Unlike the outbreak in Navapur, Maharashtra, in February 2006, where there were only large commercial poultry farms, here the majority of the holdings are backyard poultry. Practically every house maintains a holding of a couple of tens of birds, and a few deaths may not have generally created any doubt about unknown infections in peoples minds. In a large breeding farm, on the contrary, sudden death of a large number of birds lead to suspicion and concern. Even then one saw in Navapur that for commercial reasons, the affected farms did not notify the officials in time, leading to a time loss of perhaps two to three weeks before any action was taken. But the action proved to suffice because the infection hit localised large holdings and a comparatively small number of such farms.

Of course, given the impending threat at that time soon after the Chinese outbreak in the Qinghai lake in December 2005, the machinery that was put in place to track down the infection and contain it proved to be quick and effective. And because of the general state of alert following the detection of infection in Navapur, the infection (or perhaps a simultaneous exposure) in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, where holdings are predominantly of the backyard kind, could be prevented from spreading further. The important difference between West Bengal and Maharashtra is the nature of the terrain and topography in the former, which is quite similar to Vietnam, Thailand and other South-East Asian countries. The region is largely under rice cultivation and consists of a large number of waterbodies with thriving populations of waterbirds, particularly ducks, which are silent carriers of the virus and are key to transmission of the virus to cohabiting chickens, to whom the virus is lethal.

But, as S.K. Bandopadhyay of the DAHD observed, one could probably condone the panchayat leaders action of not reacting adequately to the reports but, given the Plan of Action document circulated to the Ministries concerned of all States, the BDOs cannot be excused. All they had to do was to inform the department concerned or the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) or the District Animal Husbandry Officer (DAHO) as has been spelt out in the document, he observed. Indeed, one media report said that a certain BDO was not even aware what bird flu was. If this was the case, then the Centre is also at fault for not monitoring the ground situation after circulating the 40-page document to the State departments.

The document states: On receipt of any preliminary report regarding unusual sickness or above average mortality of poultry as well as wild and migratory birds at a place the CVO/DAHO, along with Disease Investigation Officer (DIO), shall visit that place within 24 hours and personally ascertain the circumstances and facts of the case. The DIO [who is equipped with a kit] should carry out a clinical investigation with the aim to establish the clinical situation on the farm, including ill and suspect birds. The clinical investigation must be performed on all susceptible birds present on the farm, and it must begin with the most peripheral unit. Obviously, there was complete failure on this front, especially given the circumstances obtained from 64 outbreaks of bird flu in neighbouring Bangladesh in 2007, and since there is considerable cross-border movement of goods, including poultry.

The Centre had declared a red alert throughout the region, and according to the DAHD, several workshops and training programmes were conducted to sensitise officials about the disease, its detection and handling as well its larger implications at various times during the year. In early December, at a seminar organised by the West Bengal Veterinary Alumni Association in Bishnupur, the former Director of the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory (HSADL), H.K. Pradhan, warned of the grave and threatening situation to the State poultry industry because of the Bangladesh situation. It should have become all the more important to reinforce the measures advocated on paper after the false alarm at Matigara in Darjeeling in May 2007 and the localised outbreak in Manipur in July 2007. In retrospect, however, it is clear that all these warnings and alerts did not reach the block level. Especially in the context of Id festival, when traditional exchange of gifts, which often include chickens, among the poor farming communities takes place across the border, constant vigil should have been maintained. There is every possibility of infected chickens having been exchanged days before the festival and, indeed, the unconfirmed onset date of December 18 would suggest that.

The Centre too should be blamed for its complacent attitude towards this region, lauding itself perhaps over the November declaration to the OIE and the clean chit given by the WHO on the efficient handling of the Maharashtra outbreak in 2006. Interestingly, on January 11, the very day samples from West Bengal were sent to the Centres HSADL in Bhopal for confirmatory tests of the causative organism for the unusual deaths in Birbhum and Dakshin (South) Dinajpur districts, the DAHD issued a release reiterating the misplaced notion of India being free of HPAI, only to be proved wrong on January 15 when it was confirmed that the disease was bird flu and the virus was the highly pathogenic H5N1. That it was H5 was known immediately by rapid tests; only the N part had to be established through the technique known as real-time reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which takes about five-six days to give results.

Interestingly enough, even as the threat of bird flu loomed large, particularly in the eastern sector from across the borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, the governments attitude towards its prevention and control defies logic. Many key officials involved in the successful containment of the Maharashtra outbreak were inexplicably transferred or allowed to retire. It would have been a prudent measure to continue with the personnel who were well equipped to deal with the situation after their valuable experience in 2006 and were working towards implementing an effective and workable national system and operational mechanism. According to sources in the government, even after confirmation of the outbreak on January 15, the Centre was reluctant to make the mandatory notification to the OIE, perhaps out of fear of the countrys name being sullied after its premature declaration of freedom from the virus.

Consider the following. Last year it was stated that two laboratories of biosecurity level (BSL) 4 (akin to the HSADL in Bhopal), 5-6 of BSL 3, including one in Kolkata, and 10-20 of BSL 2 would be established and adequate money for the purpose had been allocated. But nothing has happened. In fact, the country lacks suitable skilled people to set up such units and no effort has so far been made to identify such people. As a result, valuable time is lost in transporting samples often in poor condition all the way from West Bengal to Bhopal. It takes only three days for the birds to develop the disease in severe form and deaths occur soon after. Moreover, in situations like the one that obtains in West Bengal, with trafficking of birds and even smuggling quite rampant for much of the year, the virus would be spreading fast, especially when backyard poultry owners attempt to get rid of their infected holdings in the market.

According to informed sources, during October-November 2007, there were warnings to the Centre from experts that action on the ground in the States sharing their borders with Bangladesh was far from adequate. There were even suggestions from some that a ring of immunity should be created around Bangladesh to prevent the entry of infection and that ban on the entry of poultry and poultry products from across the border should be enforced strictly by vigilant policing. Ring of immunity refers to a swathe of area, say of a width of 2 km to 3 km, where all the poultry in that zone is vaccinated with H5N1 vaccine. This acts as an effective barrier against the spread of the virus into the rest of the country, save, of course, from droppings of migratory birds. But the government did not take this suggestion seriously. Even demands from the Rs.5,000-crore poultry industry were apparently not heeded.

Of course, as Bandopadhyay points out, there are limitations in having an immunisation ring, which are similar to those in any vaccination measure. That is, while vaccination protects the vaccinated birds against the disease by helping them develop antibodies, they continue to spread the virus as they still carry the virus and shed virus particles. Countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia have tried the ring barrier and it has not worked, while in some other countries it has worked very well. It could be argued that a ring barrier, with an effective monitoring and surveillance mechanism in the zone, should become virtually impregnable for the virus and should be implemented when there is a huge threat. Now it is being actively considered to create such a zone around West Bengal to prevent the entry of the virus into the neighbouring States to supplement the already ordered ban on movement of poultry and poultry products across West Bengals borders.

But, considering that the culling operations have not really kept pace with the movement of the virus the manner of culling should have been to remain ahead of the virus instead of moving from district to district following the chronology of detection of the disease these measures may be too late and the virus may have already moved out of West Bengal. There is also criticism that the surveillance mechanism has not been able to pinpoint ground zero of infection the farm or household where the disease was first detected. This, health officials point out, would be important to track possible human infection more easily instead of combing door to door, which the Health Ministry has now been forced to undertake in the manner of the Pulse Polio Campaign. Fortunately, as of date, no human case has surfaced.

Of course, if the origin of the virus was indeed Bangladesh, it would stand to reason that the infection should have occurred first in Murshidabad and not in a more western district such as Birbhum; only that it may have been discovered after Birbhum. So identification of ground zero may not really amount to much. And also, it is not inconceivable that the infection may have come into West Bengal simultaneously at various points near the border and not only into Murshidabad. But all these are arguments in hindsight, and one can be critical of any strategy adopted at this point of time.

The fact remains that there were severe shortcomings on the ground with regard to preventive measures, surveillance and awareness campaigns. Perhaps it is already beyond containment and may even get entrenched in the region, just as it is in Vietnam, China, Indonesia and Bangladesh, even as officials claim that the situation is reasonably under control. One is only witnessing new districts being added to the list every couple of days.

One could ask if the surveillance mechanism put in place was well conceived and effective, why it did not pick up the infection in mid-December itself? Indeed, it is interesting to note from the DAHDs press release that the HSADL did not receive any samples from West Bengal between December 24, 2007, and January 6. In fact, none of the States bordering Bangladesh had sent any sample for testing during this period when they should have been actively monitoring the situation. Lack of resources with the States is a valid argument, and it seems that the Centre did not sanction an amount of Rs.8 crore sought by West Bengal against the allotted Rs.3 crore during the year.

Of course, as Bandopadhyay says, a random sample survey may have failed to pick the right sample to give an indication of the onset of infection. But what the present crisis has demonstrated is that in the framing of the sample survey in a situation where the poultry population is in a large number of small pockets, unlike the situation pertaining to a cluster of commercial farms, the sampling exercise needs to be done better.

Poultry carcasses being

We are learning and the methodology and techniques are still evolving, Bandopadhyay says. At the same, he points out, that even after the outbreak many samples are still turning out to be negative for bird flu, even in medium-sized farms.

Ministry sources are quick to point out that only half of even the allotted amount had been spent by the State. The moot question is whether the States have the wherewithal, in terms of manpower and facilities, to make use of the full amount. It is highly conceivable that spending a certain amount would require the creation of appropriate facilities and human resource, which would require higher capital investments, which were not forthcoming from the Centre. Also, the expenditure could depend on the actual disbursal of the allocated amounts; it may not be there when it is actually required. Indeed, it is learnt that the DAHD was not even initially prepared to hike the amount for Information, Communication and Education (ICE) campaigns in the State.

Even post-infection operations are being hampered by lack of resources. The State is facing a shortage of veterinarians in the rapid response teams (RRTs), there are no adequate numbers of cullers and the State lacks funds to pay adequate compensation to the farmers. The State has had to mobilise retired veterinarians, veterinarians from other States, and volunteers (though, ill-advisedly) for catching and culling poultry.

Indeed, catching ducks very important in the typical South-East Asian scenario that obtains in West Bengal, where ducks and chickens cohabit in the wetland environment dominated by mono-cultivation of rice is extremely tough, requiring as it does wading through waterbodies, with the risk of catching the infection being much higher.

There is an economic downside that is characteristic of the West Bengal situation. As for the overall poultry industry, which produces about 40-50 lakh poultry birds every week and exports about 25 per cent of them to other States, the situation cannot be worse. A Rs.5,000-crore industry of a total national turnover of Rs.35,000 crore is today facing a loss of nearly 70 per cent. But the worst downside of the outbreak(s) is backyard poultry being hit badly.

This was being actively promoted by the Centre and the State in a bid to empower women and also as a means of income and food to below poverty line (BPL) families. Such enterprise could help each family to earn a few thousand rupees a month and get food and nutrition from the eggs and meat of its domestic poultry.

Now the compensation being given to them is hardly enough to bring their confidence back. It is here that the government needs to expend its resources and see that a well-conceived scheme for poverty alleviation does not get abandoned because of its laxity in meeting the challenges of emerging animal diseases.

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