January 30, 2008

India Takes Steps to Stem Bird Flu Outbreak

Following the spread of bird flu throughout 13 of India's19 West Bengal districts, the country has taken steps to stem an outbreak of the virus in the heavily populated area.

Hundreds of goats, pigs and wild birds have died since the H5N1 virus hit West Bengal's Birbhum district earlier this month.  It was the fourth outbreak of bird flu in India since 2006, but there have been no confirmation these deaths were due to the H5N1 virus.

Workers are spraying roads and markets with disinfectants in Kolkata, and also disinfecting roads and trucks linking Kolkata to neighboring districts.  Additionally, authorities have culled thousands of birds in eastern India in efforts to prevent an outbreak in the area's poultry. Over 2 million birds had already been culled in previous efforts to stem an outbreak.  Officials said they have also put in place a three-month ban on the rearing of backyard poultry in the infected districts.

Authorities used loudspeakers and distributed leaflets in villages, asking people not eat infected poultry or eat animals dying suddenly.

"We are not taking chances as the farm reported bird deaths and preliminary tests suggest bird flu," Anisur Rahaman, the state's animal resources minister told Reuters.

Authorities were checking hundreds of villagers and health workers for possible symptoms of bird flu, officials said.

To date there have been no reports of human infections in India, but officials fear the H5N1 strain could mutate into a form easily transmitted from person to person, potentially leading to a pandemic.

According to the World Health Organization, this is India's most serious outbreak of bird flu.

The situation is complicated by the fact that most poultry in the West Bengal state, which includes 80 million people, are raised in backyards. Some farmers have even resorted to hiding their birds from culling crews.

Farmers raise poultry to either earn extra money, although many say the compensation of $1 per bird is too low, or to ensure a reliable protein source.

The country has accelerated its efforts to ring-fence the outbreak to keep it from spreading to major urban areas in West Bengal and to stop the virus crossing into other states.

Selling chicken is now banned in Kolkata's Salt Lake area, eastern India's Information Technology epicenter that includes offices of leading technology companies such IBM and Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp.

"We are trying to minimize the chances of the virus hitting Kolkata," Deb Dwaipayan Chattopadhyay, a senior health official, told Reuters.

After reports of sick birds being smuggled into Kolkata, authorities there are keeping watch on the city's street markets.

In the neighboring country of Bangladesh, there are reports of hundreds of crows that have died of bird flu.  The virus has spread to nearly half of the country's 64 districts since March last year despite mass-culling of poultry after outbreaks are reported.  No human infections have been reported in Bangladesh, but the country's health authority has directed civil surgeons in all districts to create an isolation unit for treating suspected human cases should they occur.

The Indian government says laboratory tests have confirmed the H5N1 strain in at least two of West Bengal's 19 districts, and reports from 11 other districts were likely to be the same.

India's health authorities suggested the virus might have come from Bangladesh.  Most countries and all Indian states have now banned poultry products from West Bengal.


Photo Caption: Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) grown in MDCK cells (seen in green). Avian influenza A viruses do not usually infect humans; however, several instances of human infections and outbreaks have been reported since 1997. When such infections occur, public health authorities monitor these situations closely. Photo Credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith