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Inside Arambagh, human checks
Outside, wait for Bhopal report

Arambagh, Feb. 24: At the small, roadside farm, morose men puzzle over what's killing their chickens. Stand aside, don't catch something.

At Arambagh Hatcheries, hosepipe nozzles cover you in a mist of disinfectant spray so you don't give their birds something.

Welcome to the misty world of bird flu scare in Bengal.

Sheikh Nurul Islam, owner of the Sheikhpara rearing farm ' one of about 5,000 small poultries dotting Arambagh and its outskirts ' doesn't know what's hit him and his chickens. Nearly 600 of his 700 birds, supplied by a hatchery from Calcutta, died 'in the past three-four days'. Most of those left seem uninterested in their food.

The doctors at the local veterinary hospital ' goru hashpatal (cow hospital) to Islam ' made the usual diagnosis of Ranikhet Disease.

'They told us 'you didn't vaccinate the birds',' Islam says. 'I showed them the vaccination certificate. It was your vaccine, I told them. Was it adulterated' They kept quiet.'

He turns even more morose. 'The government's people came and took away four birds and blood samples. They have been sent to Bhopal.

'It must be Ranikhet: the birds' noses began running and their throats swelled a few days before they died.'

That doesn't rule out bird flu. But the chickens' combs and beaks are not blackish ' the colour the flu virus is supposed to turn them.

'Some of the birds kept going round and round,' a farm hand in a short lungi and vest, who has been listening intently, butts in.

Clockwise, as in bird flu' The man looks puzzled.

Islam has no patience with this loose talk. 'Many chickens do that before they die,' he snaps at lungi-and-vest.

At Arambagh Hatcheries, the world's going round the way it has always. Forget the chickens giving you bird flu. It's the birds who are at risk from you.

Stand aside, take the shower of chlorine dioxide, 'the world's number one disinfectant' as manager and veterinarian Dr Sanjib Das never tires of informing you.

They pull out the hoses as soon as you step inside the gates ' which had stayed stubbornly shut to even government officials immediately after the scare outbreak ' and again when you pass through the turnstile at the entrance to the building leading to the sheds.

But undress only after tak-ing the shower fully clothed. Get into the white apron and pyjamas, put on the white cap and pull the mask tight over your face. You have, of course, exchanged your shoes for the firm's sanitised sandals and stepped into a puddle of chlorine dioxide solution to get your feet suitably clean.

Dr Das is apologetic. 'Standard procedure; even we have to follow it,' he says. 'Humans are the carriers of so many infections for the birds.'

The chickens are attacking their food with enthusiasm. Their combs are red enough. 'See' No bird flu,' Dr Das beams. He reels off details of the hygiene and monitoring system the farm follows.

How bad has business been hit' Not too hard yet, but if the scare lasts a few more days, the rearing farms will stop buying day-old chicks from the hatchery. Too many extra chicks can't be accommodated ' there's the risk of infection, too ' so they'll need to be culled.

For now, Arambagh Hatcheries is absorbing the loss. But the small farms scattered around the area, each rearing between 500 and 1,000 chickens, are at the end of their tether.

'The Ranikhet outbreak left many of us on the brink,' Sheikh Islam says. 'The bird flu scare may just be the final push. A quick, good result from Bhopal is our only hope.'

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