New Delhi, Oct. 14: With the lethal bird flu slipping into the fringes of Europe, India is keeping its eyes peeled on its poultry and wild birds.
Forest staff will scan sanctuaries and national parks while farmers and state animal inspectors will closely watch poultry on farms to detect the avian influenza virus before it gets a chance to spread in India, officials and wildlife biologists said.
“We’re asking farms to keep a watch for any sign of unusual mortality among their poultry,” said Dr Shantanu Bandopadhyay, animal husbandry commissioner. The animal husbandry department has told all states to start surveillance at the district and block levels.
Scientists’ biggest worry is that the steadily-mutating virus ' which has killed at least 60 people in Southeast Asia in the past two years ' will exchange genes with human influenza viruses and gain the ability to spread from person to person through coughs and sneezes.
If that happens, scientists say, it could sweep across the globe, killing millions. The 20th century witnessed three influenza pandemics, the worst in 1918-19 killing 40-50 million people.
Currently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says, the virus “does not spread easily” either from birds to humans or from person to person. But a reassortment of viral genes can lead to a novel subtype against which humans will have little immunity.
Last week, officials from 80 countries gathered in Washington to come up with plans to fight the next flu pandemic, with US President George W. Bush urging pharmaceutical executives to focus on influenza vaccines.
Migratory waterfowl 'mainly wild ducks ' are the natural reservoirs of avian influenza, but domestic poultry, such as chickens, are particularly susceptible to epidemics.
Direct contact with infected poultry or surfaces contaminated by their droppings are believed to be the main route of human infection. Exposure risk is considered highest during de-feathering and butchering and preparation of poultry for cooking. There is no evidence that cooked poultry products can infect, the WHO said.
Since January 2004, the virus, labelled H5N1, has caused unprecedented outbreaks of influenza in poultry and humans in several Southeast Asian countries. Millions of birds have been infected ' and killed or destroyed ' in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Korea, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
The WHO announced on Thursday that H5N1 has been detected in domestic birds in Turkey. Recent poultry deaths in Romania have been attributed to the H5 subtype, though further tests to detect the exact strain are under way. Experts suspect the virus moved to Europe through migratory birds.
The national action plan in India will also aim at mapping the migratory routes of wild birds that fly in from China and other parts of central Asia, said wildlife biologist Taej Mundkur.
He said amateur bird-watchers may help forest department staff look for sick or dying wild and migratory birds in sanctuaries. But with migratory wild birds spotted at nearly 90 sites across India, the surveillance poses enormous logistical challenges.
“I wouldn’t say we have enough people going out often enough looking for birds,” Mundkur said.
The High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal ' the only Indian laboratory ready for rapid diagnosis of H5N1 ' has been screening blood and faecal samples from poultry from different states. Between July and September, it examined 3,207 samples.
“We haven’t found any sample infected with H5N1 so far,” laboratory director Hare Krishna Pradhan said.
“India is free as of now, but surveillance needs to be intensified as migratory birds move in during winter.”