Bird flu poses fresh challenge even as India battles covid-19


The spread of avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, in four Indian states has posed a fresh challenge before the country that is already struggling to tackle the covid-19 pandemic.

The government on Wednesday said while the infection has not yet been reported in humans in India, the disease is zoonotic, and the secondary spread by human handling (through fomites) cannot be ruled out.

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In India, bird flu spreads mainly from migratory birds coming into the country during between September-October and February-March.

Avian influenza has been reported from 12 epicentres in four states. In Rajasthan, it has been reported in Baran, Kota, and Jhalawar, while in Madhya Pradesh, areas of Mandsaur, Indore, Malwa have reported the disease. In Himachal Pradesh, Kangra areas have reported cases of bird flu, while in Kerala areas of Kottayam and Allapuzha have recorded cases.

Kerala that was the first to have cases of covid-19 is still grappling with the highest number of daily coronavirus infections. It has already declared the bird flu as a state disaster.

As per state government officials, Kerala has initiated control and containment operations from Tuesday at epicentres and culling process is on.

The Department of Animal Husbandry & Dairying has set up a control room in New Delhi to keep watch on the situation and to take stock on daily basis of preventive and control measures undertaken by state authorities.

The government has said that the population at high risk for avian influenza is commercial birds with high density such as chickens and ducks.

Public health experts have said that the country will need to be extra cautious amid the covid-19 pandemic challenges.

“The preparation done for covid-19 so far should be extended to detect cases of bird flu. There has to be similar multidisciplinary co-ordination as seen in the pandemic, with Ministries of Health, Environment and Forest all coming together,” said N K Ganguly, president, Jawaharlal Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research and former Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

Additionally, authorities should quickly identify affected areas, create a perimeter and carry out culling of birds. This will only be possible with appropriate economic assistance such that this exercise is done quickly and thoroughly, Ganguly added.

Testing has to be intensified for both covid-19 and bird flu cases to track the spread of the infection and to break the chain of transmission. “Surveillance is crucial as the virus is brought by migratory birds who follow a fixed route. It would be prudent to carry out molecular sequencing of the virus to identify the clade and caution neighbouring countries that fall in the route of the migratory birds, to avoid further outbreaks,” said Ganguly.

It should be understood that the particular virus spreads faster in wet markets, compared to organized farms and thus efforts need to be targeted, he added.

India notified the first outbreak of avian influenza in 2006. There is no direct evidence that these viruses can be transmitted to humans via consumption of contaminated poultry products. “Bird flu does not get transmitted to humans very easily. We do not yet know the actual details of the spread of the virus, if any. It should however not impact the vaccination drive scheduled to begin soon, but the states should take precautions,” said Virander Singh Chauhan, professor at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

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