Bird flu should not be treated like Coronavirus
Unlike Covid-19, which struck as a totally unknown scourge, bird flu, caused by a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, H1N5, and its variants, is neither new nor unfamiliar. It has been erupting frequently in different parts of India ever since its first devastating epidemic in 2006. The strategies to contain and control it within the epicentres of the outbreaks have already been evolved and duly validated over the years. Yet, surprisingly, this year’s bird flu infestation in about 10 states is sought to be dealt with differently, employing to it the controversial protocols devised to combat Covid-19, with a debatable degree of success. The lockdown of wholesale chicken markets and curbs on the movement and retail sales of poultry products in several states, including Delhi, smack of anti-Covid-19 action. Such steps would needlessly cripple the poultry industry, which, like the dairy sector, has thrived without the government’s handholding. Worse, these could dent gross domestic product in agriculture and allied activities, the only major sector of the economy that has continued to grow at a robust rate during the Covid crisis. Even the Union animal husbandry ministry has counselled the states against such panic reactions, but to no avail.
The fact that is being disregarded is that basically bird flu is not a human health issue. It is a lethal respiratory ailment of poultry and wild birds, which can sometimes get transmitted to other animals like swine, cats, and dogs but rarely to human beings. Only the workers handling infected birds without the needed precaution can get it. In India, there has been no case of human infection of this virus. That happens mostly in the East Asian countries because of local eating habits and inadequate precaution, besides other reasons. It also does not spread from person to person or through consuming well-cooked poultry products. This contention has been endorsed by United Nations bodies like the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The virus gets inactivated during cooking at 70 degrees Celsius or a higher temperature. There is, thus, no case for closing down hygienically-run chicken markets or retail outlets, or curbing the movement and trade of healthy live birds and processed chicken products.
However, a distinct feature of the current episode of bird flu is that it is confined largely, if not entirely, to wild birds. This is reflected in the large number of deaths of crows, ducks, and other birds around lakes, wildlife parks, and other spots routinely visited by local and migratory birds. The wildlife diversity and non-domesticated birds are, therefore, at greater risk than domesticated fowls and chicken farms. In cases where culling infected or suspected virus-carrying birds is not feasible for some reasons, mass vaccination of these birds may be worth attempting. Avian flu-related casualties are relatively low in organised sector poultry farms because most of them, learning from the past experience, have put in place the necessary safety biospheres around them. The focus of the combat against bird flu needs, therefore, to shift from the organised poultry sector to the areas where domestic and migratory birds abound, such as water bodies, wetlands, zoos, and wildlife parks. But the action has to be on a war footing because the birds’ movements cannot be restrained.