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Bird flu alert in Assam

Guwahati, Sept. 26: The Union ministry of environment and forests has directed Assam to draw up a contingency plan to combat bird flu before migratory birds start arriving in the state. The wake-up call follows reports that some of the feathered visitors from China could be carrying strains of the deadly disease.

Alarmed by Delhi's warning, the state forest department has convened a meeting of veterinarians, wildlife officials and other experts on September 30 at the state zoo here.

Quoting the ministry missive, sources here said the first flocks of three species ' the bar-headed geese, the great black-headed gull and the great cormorant ' migrating between Qianhai Hu in China and South Asia, mostly India and Bangladesh, have been sighted in the region.

This year, avian flu was first detected on May 4 among wild birds in China's Qinghai province over which lie two migratory paths ' the central Asian flyway and the east Asian flyway. Birds migrating to the region mostly take the Central Asian flyway to Assam.

Delhi's warning comes amidst reports that the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus has struck migratory geese at a nature reserve in western China and led to a large number of deaths. Tens of thousands of birds that could be carrying the virus are reported to have left the reserve in September and are headed for warmer climes across the Himalayas. These birds reach India mostly in early October.

According to experts, the birds can pass on the virus to domestic poultry or avian pets, which can, in turn, transmit the virus to humans as well.

'There is cause for concern and Dispur should take urgent steps to make sure that the disease does not strike in the state,' said P.C. Bhattacharjee of the zoology department of Gauhati University.

Sources in the state government said places where heightened vigil was required were Kaziranga, Dibru-Saikhowa and the wetlands to which the birds mostly flock. 'We are not taking any chances. Friday's meeting will decide the steps needed to combat the disease,' a senior state wildlife official said.

The ministry has also asked the state government to monitor and report any incidence of suspected cases related to birds dying of avian disease. Suitable samples should be collected for virus testing.

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