The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Outbreak under wraps for 12 days

New Delhi, Feb. 21: Despite months of elaborate advance planning to detect the avian influenza H5N1 virus, when it actually began to kill poultry in India, confirmed diagnosis was possible only after at least a 12-day delay.

Government officials said that the problem lay not in the disease-tracking machinery of the Maharashtra or central governments, but emerged from attempts by poultry farms in Navapur to deal with an obvious outbreak on their own.

An advisory sent by India’s department of animal husbandry to the World Organisation for Animal Health yesterday said that unusual mortality in chicken in Navapur began from January 27, but the first confirmed diagnosis of H5N1 was made only on February 18. Animal husbandry officials said the state and central governments began to act only on February 8.

During this 12-day period from January 27 to February 8, even as the diseased chickens were dying in the poultry farms of Navapur, officials suspect that it was business-as-usual for the industry.

“The (poultry) farmers never told us what was going on there,” Madhukar Kamble, deputy secretary in the Maharashtra department of animal husbandry, told The Telegraph.

Public health analysts familiar with poultry practices in India are concerned that during this period, the virus could have spread from one farm to another. Poultry farms often share transport vehicles, chicken crates and other maintenance materials.

Kamble said it was only on the morning of February 9 that state officials “discovered” the outbreak, and rushed samples of the dead chickens and faecal tissues to the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal for diagnosis.

“The state and central government agencies moved as fast as we could,” said Upma Chawdhry, joint secretary in the central animal husbandry department. “But each of us has a responsibility to public health.”

Chawdhry said the Centre was still awaiting information from the state authorities about which farm was struck first by the H5N1 virus.

State officials have said the commercial poultry farms initially interpreted the outbreak as Ranikhet, another viral disease of poultry.

An analysis of advisories received by the World Organisation for Animal Health suggests that many countries have confirmed diagnosis of H5N1 in less than a week after the first death of birds was observed. Bulgaria noticed bird deaths on January 31 and confirmed diagnosis on February 3.

Italy observed bird deaths on February 1 and established that it was H5N1 infection on February 11. France, which also reported bird flu last week, took just four days to confirm H5N1 infection after bird deaths were reported. Nigeria, however, took 26 days after the first bird deaths.

While the samples from Navapur reached the Bhopal laboratory on February 11, the government announced a confirmed diagnosis of H5N1 only on February 18.

Leading virologists have said a seven-day period to confirm the presence of H5N1 is not unusual, given the impact the announcement would have on the poultry industry.

While standard tests that look for genetic residues of the H5N1 in the samples from the poultry farms would have taken at the most 10 to 12 hours, the Bhopal laboratory also confirmed the diagnosis by isolating the virus from three samples.

“We wanted absolute confirmation,” a senior animal husbandry officer said. He cited the instance of a southeast Asian country that had raised a false alarm of H5N1 last year, on the basis of preliminary tests, that subsequently proved to be negative.

“My counterpart there lost his job,” the officer said.

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