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Don’t turn it into a ‘fowl’ play

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Don’t turn it into a ‘fowl’ play

Don’t turn it into a ‘fowl’ play

Don’t turn it into a ‘fowl’ play

With so many virus attacks in the past one year, bird flu is just one of them. The aim should be to deal with the situation calmly rather than resorting to the most inhumane of options-culling...

Himanshi Shukla

Fear and Paranoia gripped the entire country as thousands of migratory birds reported to be dead in Himachal Pradesh’s Pong Dam Sanctuary in the last week of December! It was followed by bird deaths (especially peacocks and crows) in Rajasthan’s Nagaur and Jodhpur districts. The carcasses of the dead crows were also found in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Thereafter, they were sampled and sent to the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD), Bhopal. The tests done there via the random sampling cloacal swab method confirmed the prevalence of Avian Influenza (commonly known as Bird Flu), caused by the H5N8 virus strain. This is despite the fact that India was declared free of Avian Influenza way back in 2015. It was followed by the deaths of more than 10,000 ducks in Kerala’s Alappuzha and Kottayam Districts. The death wave soon engulfed the entire country, taking toll on the native birds as well. The flu especially made its presence felt in four states - Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh across 12 epicentres. In these States, cases of bird flu have been confirmed in crows in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, in “migratory birds” in Himachal Pradesh, and in poultry and duck in Kerala.  Several other states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Gujarat have been put on high alert. The flu was also confirmed by other countries like the Japan, South Korea, China, the Netherlands, U.K., Belgium, Denmark, France, etc.  While the source of the infection remains undetected, the role of the migratory birds in spreading the infection cannot be ruled out.

What is Avian Flu and how is it caused?

Avian influenza (avian flu or bird flu) is an infection which mostly affects the birds. Out of the many strains present, the H5N1 virus is the deadliest and the most common one. However, the current epidemic is caused by the H5N8 strain. These viruses occur naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species. Wild aquatic birds can be infected with avian influenza A viruses in their intestines and respiratory tract, but usually do not get sick. However, avian influenza A viruses are very contagious among birds and some of these viruses can sicken and even kill certain domesticated bird species including chickens, ducks, and turkeys. Avian influenza A viruses are can be classified into two categories: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) A viruses, and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A viruses. The categories refer to molecular characteristics of a virus and the virus’ ability to cause disease and mortality in chickens in a laboratory setting. Infection of poultry with LPAI viruses may cause no disease or mild illness (such as ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production) and may not be detected. Infection of poultry with HPAI viruses can cause severe disease with high mortality. Both HPAI and LPAI viruses can spread rapidly through poultry flocks. However, some ducks can be infected without any signs of illness. HPAI virus infection in poultry (such as with HPAI H5 or HPAI H7 viruses) can cause disease that affects multiple internal organs with mortality up to 90% to 100%, often within 48 hours.

How does the infection spread?

Infected birds can shed avian influenza A viruses in their saliva, nasal secretions, and faeces. Susceptible birds become infected when they have contact with the virus as it is shed by infected birds. They also can become infected through contact with surfaces that are contaminated with virus from infected birds.

Can this virus infect humans?

Though the H5N8 strain is fatal to the birds, it has lesser chances of spreading among the humans, as compared to the H5N1 virus which has a mortality rate of 60% among the humans. A plus point here is that we were already amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, hence following precautionary measures like social distancing, wearing face masks, sanitizing hands, etc which further reduces the spread. It is believed that most cases of bird flu infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. Poultry farmers appear to be at a greater risk. There is no evidence of human-to-human transmission so far.

Is it safe to eat poultry and poultry related products?

“Poultry and poultry products can be prepared and consumed as usual, with no fear of acquiring infection with the avian flu virus, provided one continues to follow good hygienic and cooking practices.  The virus is destroyed at a temperature of 700 C for 30 minutes,” says the health and information advisory issued by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.  Given the state of affairs, poultry farmers are at more risk as they handle the stock directly. They should adopt such sanitary practices as to wash hands and other exposed parts with soap and water. As per the advisory of Health Ministry of the government of India: “There is no direct evidence that AI viruses can be transmitted to humans via the consumption of contaminated poultry products. Implementing management practices that incorporate bio security principles, personal hygiene, and cleaning and disinfection protocols, as well as cooking and processing standards, are effective means of controlling the spread of the AI viruses”. The World Health Organisation has called upon the One Health Approach wherein zoonotic diseases can be controlled via a concerted and coordinated approach from veterinary to other health departments.

Fears abound

Dr Gyaneshwar Shukla, Naturalist and Microbiologist, says: “Uninformed reporting and misinformation spread from various unauthorized sources leads to mass hysteria and paranoia amidst people. Unfortunately, I see no end to it unless right experts are engaged in what would be called an informed discussion. ”

How is the flu being handled by the authorities?

The measures being adopted range from preventive (sanitary, etc) to downright drastic. Several states starting from Himachal Pradesh and Goa and later Manipur, Assam and Madhya Pradesh banned the sale and consumption of poultry products in their own states as well as the imports from the neighbouring states. Thereafter, the central government stepped in and asked the states to rethink upon the ban. The National Restaurant Association of India protested and called the ban ‘unscientific, that only created panic in the eyes of the public.’ Few days later, the Delhi government rolled back the ban after the samples taken from Ghazipur Murga Mandi were tested negative for the H5N8 strain.  Sanitary measures are also afoot. After cases of bird flu were notified at the Kanpur Zoological Park, Dr Sunil Chaudhary (Zoo Director) said: “All CZA, IVRI and Department of Animal Husbandry Guidelines were enforced from March 17th onwards, but they are further being strengthened and modified as per the protocol.” These include extensive sanitary measures – vehicles being subjected to tyre bath, visitors being given foot bath and hand sanitization, aviary enclosures being sanitized regularly. In addition to this, the field staff was provided necessary security gears and made aware of the biosecurity. Left over bird feed, bird droppings, etc are being incinerated daily. As per the press release issued by Mukesh Kumar, Chief Conservator of Forests, Lucknow on January 8, various preventive measures are afoot. Those water bodies that are frequented by the migratory birds shall be marked and monitored closely. They shall be trapped and the samples collected is to be sent to NIHSAD, Bhopal for testing. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah Zoological Garden, Lucknow has isolated the birds by closing down the bird enclave thereby ensuring their safety. Some states like Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh have adopted more drastic measures like large scale culling of birds. Culling entails mass slaughter of birds in an entire infected area to arrest the spread. Directions have been given to enforce culling in sick birds as per the government’s 2015 National Avian Influenza Plan, according to a press statement from the Ministry of Fisheries and Animal Husbandry recently. In Maharashtra, 15,500 poultry birds were culled in Latur and Parbhani alone, while more than eight lakh birds have died of the flu. Kerala carried out mass culling of more than 48,000 poultry birds and ducks in Alappuzha and Kottayam Districts.

How feasible is culling to be used as the last resort?

The devil lies in the detail. If the mass slaughter can be justified on the ground that simply killing the sick birds can stop the spread, then the question we must be asking here is that how can we possibly identify “potentially sick” birds, when this is practically impossible. How many birds are then to be slaughtered and for how long.  Dr Gyaneshwar Shukla, Naturalist and Microbiologist, says, “Culling is downright inhuman. Instead, we should be questioning why weren’t the poultry birds quarantined as soon as the news flashed in. Raising birds for your own market-oriented profit motive and then slaughtering them as per your own convenience cannot be justified.” “How can we ensure that the birds being culled are necessarily infected without lab tests? Why aren’t the birds being given a chance to develop natural immunity against the virus as we humans were in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic?” he asks. K Praveen Rao, Senior Forest Official, says: “Culling, to me appears somewhat drastic measure. Can the authorities ensure that as the felling of trees is compensated by afforestation, the same will be done for these birds, so as not to disturb the ecological imbalance? Besides, this is not even touching at the root cause which is why these epidemics spread in the first place”. Dr Amita Kanaujia, Nature Enthusiast and Professor, Lucknow University, raises a few pertinent questions on the issue. “Who will assure that the culling isn’t being carried out arbitrarily? Who will allay fears in the minds of people or stop them from imitating such measures? What is being done for the survival of other native birds?” she asks.

Are there any alternatives to culling?

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) manual on HPAI lists “zoning and targeted culling” as an alternative. This entails identifying and restricting any movement at the epicentres and culling all the sick birds, thus converting Infected Area to a Restricted Area. Thereafter, a Control Area is to be declared around the restricted area where there is lesser vigilance than the restricted area but it is to act as a buffer zone. No culling is recommended beyond the Restricted Area if there is no further spread.   This strategy has a major plus point. It ensures that the birds aren’t being culled arbitrarily without any rhyme or reason. The “Zoning” strategy automatically entails that the people are less likely to engage in ornithophobic activities, like killing or poisoning the birds. But while the strategy may reduce culling, it is not the one that is completely against it. Further, since the migratory birds are the carriers, their movement cannot be restricted beyond a limit. That said, it must be remembered that prevention is always better than the cure. Professor Amita Kanaujia says: “Bird flus have been occurring for quite some time…the last one occurred in 2015. The migratory birds which spread the flu too have a particular season- a fixed one at that. Why then, I fail to understand, weren’t preventive measures taken when this scenario was very much a possibility.?”

Dr. Kaushalendra Singh, an avian expert, adds: “Culling is being resorted to as the last option because we as humans have failed Mother nature. It is our duty to protect these birds and instead we derive benefits from them (chicken, eggs, etc), keep them in unhygienic conditions and then massacre them when a disease strikes. Was the same done to humans in the Covid-19 pandemic?” Singh also suggests some alternatives, “Prevention is the best method but after the virus spreads, we should be contacting veterinary experts and provide the poultry birds immunity boosters which are very much available both in allopathy and homeopathy.”

How has the flu impacted the poultry industry?

The poultry industry, which was already reeling under the stress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has yet again registered steep losses. The Indian Express reported that the prices of broiler chicken crashed from 82 to Rs 58 per kg in Maharashtra, Rs 94 to Rs 65 in Gujarat, and Rs 80 to Rs 70 in Tamil Nadu.  This can only be understood as the ‘cascading effect’ the rumours and fear mongering about the disease. The paranoia about the disease caused it to upgrade it to the level of Covid-19 pandemic in the eyes of the public. Even Maize which is used as a feedstock for the poultry industry slumped down from Rs. 1800 per quintal to Rs 1100 per quintal. Animal Husbandry minister Giriraj Singh asked the state governments not to shut down poultry shops or ban the sale of broiler chicken or eggs, as there has not been a single case of the bird flu being transmitted to the humans.

Which bird species are the most affected?

Avian Influenza A viruses have been isolated from more than 100 different species of wild birds. Most of these viruses have been LPAI viruses. The majority of the wild birds from which these viruses have been recovered represent gulls, terns and shorebirds or waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans. These wild birds are often viewed as reservoirs (hosts) for avian influenza A viruses. Apart from the wild birds, domesticated birds (poultry) like chicken and turkey have also been affected. Crows too seem to have a high mortality rate whilst they catch the virus, especially in Madhya Pradesh.

A more curious, though the first and the only incident, has been of the death of a brown fish owl in the Delhi Zoo. The Zoo Director, Ramesh Pandey said: “As per the standard protocols and guidelines issued by the Central Zoo Authority, MoEFCC and Animal Husbandry Department, Govt of Delhi NCT, the sanitization and surveillance drills have been intensified in the National Zoological Park and all possible preventive and prophylactic measure are being taken meticulously. Birds in captivity have been isolated and are under consistent monitoring and care for their behaviour and health. Spray of Lime, Virkon-S & Sodium hypochlorite and foot bath of Potassium permanganate are being done on regular intervals every day. Chicken feed to raptors and entry of vehicles inside the Zoo had already been stopped, which is being further reinforced and intensified. Movement of staffs and workers in zoo is also being restricted and regulated keeping in view the Animal Influenza threats. National Zoological Park is already closed due to Covid-19 and is not open for public.”

Zoonotic Diseases on the rise

The flu is neither the first nor the last. The first known avian flu occurred in 1878 and has since been recorded countlessly, the last one occurred in 2015. Dr Gyaneshwar Shukla, Naturalist and Microbiologist says: “The potential of Zoonotic Diseases and “invasive alien species” has been the subject of debate in the USA’s academic circles since the past 20 years. They’ve subsequently taken measures to ensure their native fauna remains isolated thereby reducing the possibilities of spread of such diseases. In India, we should scale up such mechanisms. A thorough microbiological examination should be done by an expert before even introducing some exotic species lest they should turn out to be “invasive alien species and wipe out the native population,” he suggests. He goes on to say: “Such diseases are all but inevitable given the lifestyle adopted by us humans. The Charak Samhita categorically prophesised these thousands of years ago as “Janpado Vidhwans”. Until we know of more certain ways to deal with an ever so elusive enemy, we would be wiser devising ways to live with it rather than adopting desperate and short-sighted measures.

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