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Why Has Bird Flu Hit Assam for the Fifth Time?

by 5m Editor
15 December 2008, at 9:37a.m.

INDIA - An editorial piece in <em>Business Standard</em> asks why highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has broken out in Assam five times in just three years.

The fresh outbreak of the dreaded bird flu disease amongst poultry in Assam, barely three weeks after the government declared India as an avian influenza-free country, exposes the chinks in the strategy for nationwide biosecurity, according to the editor in Business Standard of India.

The spread of this deadly virus to areas outside the Kampur (rural) district, where it was first detected, even after the commencement of culling operations and the proclamation of a general alert in Assam and its neighbouring north-eastern states, makes the laxity on this front all the more evident.

It is of course true that the virulent H5N1 strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus continues to persist in several countries across the eastern border, and because of this the occasional incidence of this disease in India can neither be ruled out nor, perhaps, be effectively prevented. But having conceded this, it is worth noting that the fresh outbreak has occurred at a time when migratory birds fly into India and mingle with backyard poultry birds and ducks around the water bodies that abound in the eastern states.

If the surveillance arrangements that are claimed to have been put in place in the vulnerable spots break down at such a critical time, there surely is something amiss.

This is the fifth outbreak of bird flu in less than three years, since the first episode in Maharashtra's Navapur area in February 2006. These epidemics have caused the poultry sector a colossal loss of 100 billion rupees (INR) by way of loss of production, stoppage of exports and destruction of poultry birds, feed and other material. Equally badly hit are the large number of rural households which keep poultry birds to supplement their income and nutrition. Worse still, the danger of a pandemic caused by mutation of the H5N1 virus into a form communicable from one human to another continues to lurk like the sword of Damocles.

It is a pity that the government continues to disregard advice from poultry experts, to immunise/vaccinate birds in vulnerable spots along the routes taken by migratory birds, and to compartmentalise the country into different zones.

It should be obvious that such measures will minimise the chances of a fresh outbreak of the disease, and allow poultry operations, including exports, to continue unabated in the disease-free zones. The vaccination needs to be repeated periodically, and would work because local poultry owners, who tend to hide their birds during culling operations, would readily come forward to get them vaccinated.

As for disease-related zoning, it would help poultry concentrations to remain undisturbed in the southern states, where the risk of bird flu is extremely low as they are far away from the focus of infection in the neighbouring countries to the east. It is also vital that neighbouring countries, notably Bangladesh, which have a poor record of bird flu management, be approached with an offer of joint strategies for combating this menace in the border belt.

Such moves will probably pay better dividends than the present approach which relies largely — even if quite successfully — on post-outbreak control, the Business Standard editor concludes.

Further Reading

- You can visit the Avian Flu page by clicking here.