Avian flu, also known as bird flu, is both dangerous and contagious for humans. The H5N1 influenza virus can spread quickly to humans on contact and can be fatal. However, each time there has been an outbreak of the avian flu in India, no case of human infection has been reported till date.
Will we be lucky this time as well? And, is there a chance of the current suspected cases of bird flu reported in Delhi and Gwalior spreading to other parts of the country?
This year’s outbreak was first noticed when two birds were found dead at the National Zoological Park in Delhi, also commonly called Delhi Zoo. This was followed by three dead ducks discovered on 18 October at the Deer Park located in Hauz Khas area of South Delhi and followed by another two on 19 October from the same area. Three crows were also found dead in Sunder Nagar which is located very close to the Delhi Zoo.
This was enough to raise alarm with the Delhi Government that has since gone into mission mode. Viscera samples have been sent for tests to confirm the deaths were indeed due to H5N1 virus, and while the lab reports are awaited, the government has initiated action to take preventive measures to stop the bird flu from spreading to other parts of Delhi and beyond.
Haryana government too has been alerted, as the neighbouring state shares the Asola Bhatti bird sanctuary in Tughlakabad which extends to Haryana as well. Asola Bhatti is recognized as an important bird nesting area, and therefore, when one bird death was reported from there, it only added to government fears that they may be staring at another outbreak of the deadly disease.
Adding to Delhi’s concerns were cases of 15 painted storks that were found dead at the Gandhi Zoological Park in Gwalior. The zoo authorities had sent the viscera samples to Jabalpur and Bhopal testing laboratories and results confirm the cause of death to be H5N8 virus, a sub-type of H5N1.
As a precautionary measure, Bilaspur Zoo has also been shut and bird flu prevention measures have been initiated, since the zoo has several birds in cages and there is a fear of an outbreak there.
So is the panic in Delhi and other places justified? Yes it is.
450 deaths in 16 countries since 2003 due to Influenza A (H5N1)
As per World Health Organization (WHO), there have been 851 laboratory confirmed cases of Influenza A (H5N1) reported in humans, of which 450 have died since 2003.
In May this year, one person died due to H5N1 in Egypt, while a 2 year old was reported infected by the virus; the child survived. In June, a 30 year old woman and an 8 year old girl (unrelated) both of whom had been exposed to poultry related environments in Egypt were reported to be infected with H5N1 and were treated.
In China alone, between 13 June and 19 July 2016, 12 cases of a related virus (H7N9) were reported. Of these, 5 died, 4 were critical, and 3 were termed serious at the time. In August, China reported 5 cases of H7N9 of which 1 person died, 2 were reported critical and 2 were mild cases. The H7N9 virus is known to breed in poultry environments.
Globally, 793 cases of H7N9 have been reported, of which 319 persons have died. The H7N9, a variant of H5NI, is spread through human exposure working in or around poultry farms.
That is reason enough for concern, even if India has not reported any death due to H5N1 or H7N9 virus.
Delhi at high risk
Delhi is a large consumer of poultry and hosts Asia’s largest poultry wholesale market at Ghazipur on the outskirts of East Delhi. The market which processes around 3 lakh chickens per day, is a potential breeding ground for H5NI virus due to poor hygiene conditions in and around the wholesale market area.
Due to this, residents of Delhi have been avoiding purchasing chicken through most of the week, causing concern of an oncoming fall in prices of chicken and increasing the chances of losses for all who are part of the chicken supply chain.
Retailers who were selling 700 to 800 kg of chicken per day are down to around 500 kg per day and sales are continuing to trend low. The Delhi government, however, is not taking chances and has gone into crisis mode in tackling the emerging situation.
Meanwhile, the Rajasthan government too is taking precautionary measures as the state exports a lot of its chicken to Delhi.
Delhi government gets cracking
Delhi government has canceled all leaves of Animal Husbandry personnel to tackle the current situation. 23 teams have been formed, which include 10 rapid response teams, to monitor and supervise fumigation and related flu prevention measures at high risk areas of Delhi. 10 municipal corporation teams have also been formed and are on standby. Cleanliness drives have been initiated all across the city.
The Delhi Zoo, Deer park and other places where birds are kept or congregate, have been closed to public. How effective these measure prove to be will be known through coming weeks.
Meanwhile, the government is stocking up on Tamiflu tablets that are used to treat humans infected with bird flu.
Precautionary steps that citizens can take
Health and hygiene is not the purview of the state alone but all citizens. The least citizens can do is to ensure that areas around their houses are kept clean and no food waste is thrown in the open that can attract birds etc.
In several parts of Delhi, pigeons are fed on a daily basis. These are potential breeding grounds for bird flu, and therefore these need to be frequently fumigated and kept clean in order to minimize the chances of the disease breaking out.
India has been lucky to be spared of any avian flu infection in humans but we can’t take that for granted as prevention is any day better than cure. Let’s all do our best to keep ourselves and those around us safe.