India risks bird-flu 'disaster'

India’s worst-ever outbreak of bird flu could turn into a disaster, an official warned on Tuesday, as five people were reportedly quarantined with symptoms of the virus.


Eight districts in the eastern state of West Bengal have been hit by the virus, and dead birds are being sold and locals said to be “feasting” on cheap chicken.


The state’s animal resources minister, Anisur Rahaman, said authorities were “determined to cull all poultry in the districts in three or four days, otherwise the state will face a disaster”.


More than 100 000 bird deaths have been reported, and teams are racing to cull two million chickens and ducks.


The Times of India reported five people in West Bengal have been quarantined with “clinical symptoms” of avian flu—including fever, coughing, sore throat and muscle ache—after handling affected poultry.


If the tests are positive, this will be the first case of human infection in India, home to 1,1-billion people and hit by bird flu among poultry three times since 2006.


Health officials in New Delhi said they were currently analysing blood samples from close to 150 people who have complained of fever.


On the ground, culling teams have been facing an uphill battle with villagers smuggling birds out of flu affected areas and selling them in open markets.


Thirty-year-old Sheikh Ali, a vendor in Birbhum’s Gharisa market, 340km from the state capital, Kolkata, said the sale of poultry had doubled in the past week.


“The prices of chicken have come down from 60 rupees to 20 rupees ($1,50 to 50 cents) per kilogram.


“Poor villagers are feasting on chicken. At normal times, they cannot afford to buy as prices are so high. Now they are enjoying the meat,” Ali said.


People typically catch the disease by coming into direct contact with infected poultry, but experts fear a flu pandemic if the H5N1 mutates into a form easily transmissible between humans.


Migratory birds have been largely blamed for the global spread of the disease, which has killed more than 200 people worldwide since 2003.


In Birbhum, police seized two trucks of smuggled poultry early on Tuesday but culling teams were yet to arrive at the spot, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent said.


“Poultry owners are smuggling their birds out at night and transporting them to different places for fear of culling,” said Shubhendu Mahato, a security guard at Arambagh Hatchery, one of the biggest in West Bengal.


Chicken shops had also sprung up along the main highways overnight with people crowding them, the AFP correspondent said.


Neighbouring Nepal, which has banned poultry imports from India since 2006, said its border posts were on high alert.


Bangladesh, which also borders West Bengal, was, meanwhile, battling its own serious outbreak—with experts warning the situation was far worse than the government was letting on.—AFP


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