March 2008

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Health and Fitness | March 2008

 


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Bird Flu Virus Outpaces Culling in West Bengal

BY SUJOY DHAR

When nine out West Bengal state’s 19 districts were declared on Wednesday to be in the grip of a bird flu outbreak, it belied Chief Minister Buddhadeb Battacharya’s assertions, earlier in the week, that the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus was well under control.

Seven days after the outbreak was first reported in the Birbhum and South Dinajpur districts, the virus had spread through half of West Bengal which has a population of 80 million people. Culling operations were reported to be sluggish, amidst concerns voiced for the socio-economic impact on farmers and impoverished villagers who count backyard poultry among their valuables.

"There was a delay of nearly a week's time for notices to be sent to us, but now things have been put on track," union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss told reporters in New Delhi on Tuesday.

At least 100,000 birds had died of the virus before help was sought from the centre and from other states to handle culling operations and possible spread to human beings.

Officials in West Bengal admit that the outbreak could have been handled better. "We have a total of nine districts in the grip of bird flu. With northern Cooch Behar and southern Hooghly districts added on Wednesday, we can say that the virus has wreaked havoc through the length and breadth of the state," state animal resources development minister Anisur Rahman said.

West Bengal must cull over 2.1 million birds, mostly backyard poultry, in the next few days if the virus is to be stopped from spreading beyond the nine districts that include Murshidabad, Burdwan, Nadia, Malda and Bankura.

But estimates released officially say that only 300,000 birds have been slaughtered so far. Even that figure is being challenged by journalists and others who toured the affected districts.

Officials in Malda, about 350 km from Kolkata, confirmed on Wednesday that culling could not even start in the district because of lack of staff and infrastructure and the absence of a pre-culling awareness campaign in the villages.

Reports from other districts said the efforts were ham-handed and marred by various factors in a state where 72 percent of the 80 million people live in rural areas and raise their poultry as part of the family.

It does not help that West Bengal shares a long and porous border with Bangladesh where there have been several outbreaks already. Authorities have now ordered the border sealed with paramilitary troops charged with ensuring that birds are not smuggled in.

Nepal, which lies to the north of West Bengal, has banned the import of poultry from India.

While the federal government has openly criticised West Bengal for failing to act in a timely manner, provincial authorities speak of practical difficulties. ‘’To convince people to hand over backyard poultry in the villages is not easy," Rahman said.

In India, an outbreak of bird flu was first reported in the Nandurbar district of western Maharashtra in 2006. But that outbreak could be dealt with swiftly and a million birds were slaughtered with no resistance because it had occurred in a poultry farm. Another outbreak in the north-eastern state of Manipur last year was also quickly contained.

In West Bengal, when the men in masks and protective gear first reached the affected areas, they appeared like aliens to villagers who were unaware of what was happening in their state.

Many were unconvinced of the dangers. "We cooked and ate our chickens when we heard they would be killed by the government officials anyway. We have not heard much about the symptoms or the disease," said Lakhu Sheikh of Tentulia village in Birbhum district.

Tentulia is one of the villages in the worst-hit Birbhum district where people resisted culling operations. Many even managed to smuggle out their poultry, health workers said.

However, in many other areas people quietly brought in hens, ducks and eggs and collected compensation slips.

The outbreak of bird flu has cast an ominous shadow on the state's socio-economic fabric. Reports said that 28-year-old Ananda Haldar of Malda district, a poultry dealer, committed suicide on Sunday by jumping in front of an advancing train.

Ananda had not sold a single bird in the past five days and was depressed, his elder brother Prabhat said.

According to the West Bengal poultry welfare association president, Sheikh Nazrul Islam, the industry has suffered losses worth 25 million dollars over the past week.

"Culling is slow. The police is harassing us by intercepting our consignments and even demanding bribes on the one hand and on the other the adverse campaign has seriously affected the business,’’ Islam said.

"In rural areas the government itself had given one woman member in each family a brood of ten hens. Now when they are demanding them back for culling, the families are not forthcoming," Islam said. ‘’The 125 million dollar industry has suffered its worst ever setback.’’

The only good news is that, so far, human beings have been spared. West Bengal’s health minister Surya Kanta Misra said all five samples taken from humans, suspected to be infected, have come back from top government laboratories showing negative for avian influenza. ‘’There is no cause for panic,’’ he said.

[Source: IPS]

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