Monday, December 3, 2012

Sick chickens come home to roost: Deadly infection avian influenza or bird flu is present in our country

3 Dec, 2012, 07.12AM IST, Nidhi Nath Srinivas

What are the chances that a chicken infected with bird flu will land on your plate? Zero. What are the chances that a bird flu infection will increase the price you pay for chicken and eggs? 100%.
A virulent and deadly infection called avian influenza or bird flu is present in our country. The virus usually affects wild fowl which then infect chickens. The virus can survive for considerable lengths of time outside of the bird and can also be spread through vehicles, equipment and people travelling between farms, markets and abattoirs. Bird flu attacks can wipe out entire flocks. In 1997, scientists found for the first time that H5N1 flu could infect humans.
Till now, our border states -- the northeast, Odisha and West Bengal -- suffered from frequent attacks due to infection carried in from Bangladesh and Nepal. Southern India that produces 40% of our chicken and eggs escaped unscathed. Now the virus has breached this wall too.
In October, Karnataka reported bird flu at a government-run turkey farm that was so deadly that the birds died before they could display the classic symptoms. Immediately, the authorities scrambled into action to stop the infection from spreading. Even so the economic cost of such episodes is huge.
The Central Poultry Development Organisation and Training Institute, which ran the farm, has no work for now since its entire stock has been wiped out. Poultry farms within the 10-km radius have to kill their chickens to stamp out the infection. For an average-sized farm of 10,000 birds, this means losing minimum Rs 1 lakh and 20,000 kg meat. Neighbouring states bar eggs and chickens from the infection zone.
Exports are hit because major markets in the Middle East, most recently Oman, immediately banned Indian poultry and egg products. These bans are reviewed after 90 days in keeping with international norms. Two days ago, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea and the US suspended all poultry imports from Australia because of bird flu on just one farm.
The curtailed domestic supply raises prices for consumers, restaurants and food companies in a market that is expanding 10% annually. In short, the damage is serious. A recent outbreak in Mexico cost the country $860 million.
Clearly, it is in everyone's interest to eradicate bird flu. The big question is can it be done? Government does not allow vaccination against bird flu. There are good reasons. One, vaccination is a herculean task. India has 649 million chickens. When even the Pulse Polio programme can't claim 100% success, there is a slim chance that small farmers will spend money to vaccinate chickens in their backyard. Since there is a new flock of broilers every two months, stamping out bird flu through vaccination is impossible, as Vietnam's experience shows.
There are trade issues as well. Both infected and vaccinated chickens carry bird flu antibodies. Unless farmers use specially formulated imported vaccines designed to overcome this confusion, Indian chickens could face unwonted hurdles overseas.
Faced with such issues, the current government policy of forcing farmers to cull birds and root out infection seems suitable. The catch is that farmers often suppress information about an outbreak to avoid losing their entire flock. Surreptitiously burying the few sick birds is common. In fact, the Karnataka episode was immediately highlighted only because it was on a government farm, say industry insiders.

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