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Brush with bird flu
No human case so far

New Delhi, Feb. 18: The deadly avian influenza H5N1 virus has surfaced in India among poultry in a corner of northern Maharashtra, where it has killed over 30,000 chickens in the past 10 days, officials announced today.

The High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal confirmed genetic signatures of the virus in eight samples of dead poultry tissues it had received from Navapur in Nandurbar district near the Maharashtra-Gujarat border.

Animal husbandry and health officials have initiated a plan to contain the infection through the mass slaughter of more than 300,000 chickens in the infected zone and intensive surveillance to spot symptoms in humans.

“There is no human case so far, and no cause for panic,” health secretary Prasanna Hota said after a meeting in Delhi.

More than 200 veterinarians armed with protective gear and covered by anti-viral medication will begin administering the mass death sentence to the chickens spread across 16 farms around Navapur, beginning Sunday morning, the Maharashtra state minister for animal husbandry, Anees Ahmed, told The Telegraph. “We expect the culling to be completed within 24 to 48 hours.”

Doctors from Delhi and Pune have flown to Navapur to examine people who have come into contact with the infected poultry.

The doctors have examined some people who have had symptoms of cold and cough, but have not detected any case of pneumonia -- one of the hallmarks of H5N1, Hota said. Twelve human samples have been sent for tests and four people are kept under observation in Maharashtra.

Animal husbandry officials have designated a 3-km radius area as the “infected zone” and a 7-km radius area beyond as a “surveillance zone”. Every chicken in the infected zone will be killed. The veterinarians will either gas the chickens or decapitate them and then burn or bury them.

The surveillance zone around Navapur has 60 farms and one million chickens, Upma Chaudhry, the joint secretary in the animal husbandry department, said. The government has ordered 750,000 doses of vaccines for chickens in the zone.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that since 2003, H5N1 has been reported in 170 people and 92 have died, though the virus remains largely a bird disease. Scientists fear that H5N1 may exchange genes with human viruses, gain the ability to move from person to person through coughs and sneezes, and trigger a new influenza pandemic.

The 20th century had witnessed three influenza pandemics. The worst one -- the Spanish flu -- in 1918-19 is believed to have killed over 40 million people.

Most human cases of H5N1 so far have involved only people who have had long, close contact with live, diseased poultry.

Animal husbandry officials said the route of entry of H5N1 into Indian poultry is unclear. “We have had no imports of poultry from countries that have reported avian influenza for more than two years,” an official said.

In July last year, scientists had warned that India is among the winter destinations of certain species of migratory birds in China in which H5N1 had been detected. But infected birds usually become weak and often die within days. Such birds cannot migrate but scientists speculate that some species might carry the virus without symptoms.

Bengal alert

The Bengal government has issued a state-wide alert, saying the local animal husbandry officer should be informed if any bird, domestic or wild, or livestock behaves abnormally or shows signs of sickness.

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