The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Flu soldiers cull & scan

New Delhi, Feb. 19: At ground zero of India’s first outbreak of avian flu, rapid response teams today began a farm-to-farm mass slaughter of chickens and a house-to-house surveillance of people.

At least 45 veterinary teams began culling operations in the infected zone around Navapur in northern Maharashtra, while others fanned out into neighbouring areas to look for signs of unusual sickness or death in poultry or other birds.

Medical teams also began a house-to-house survey across Navapur to look for people who might have symptoms of respiratory infection and keep such people under watch, top health officials said. Navapur has a population of about 25,000.

Six people who had reported poultry deaths in their backyard farms have upper respiratory tract infection and mild fever, but there are no human cases of avian influenza so far, the officials said.

They said laboratories in New Delhi and Pune are now investigating a set of blood samples and throat swabs of 95 people from around Navapur who had come into contact with the diseased poultry in recent weeks.

The tests are aimed at finding out whether the avian influenza H5N1 virus that has killed more than 30,000 chickens in Navapur has managed to jump from the diseased poultry to humans.

The results are expected within four days, the officials said. They said a rapid response team has probed the case of a 28-year-old man who died in a Surat hospital on February 17 after acute respiratory distress. Investigations indicate that this patient had no contact with poultry.

“Tests suggest that he died of bacterial infection that caused pharyngitis,” said Dr Nirmal Kumar Ganguly, director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

Medical teams have created a 15-bed isolation unit at the Navapur district hospital, and four additional doctors have been sent there, a senior health ministry officer said.

The ministry has also sent 9,000 doses of the anti-viral drug oseltamivir to Maharashtra and 2,000 doses to Gujarat. For the moment, the drug is being used primarily to provide protective cover to staff engaged in the culling operations and medical investigators.

Animal husbandry officials said the culling of 500,000 chickens is expected to be completed by Monday though the Maharashtra chief minister put the number at 900,000. The veterinarians are decapitating the chickens one by one, or gassing them to death in sheds, then burying them.

The officials said poultry culling has also begun in four farms near the town of Uchchal in Gujarat that shares a border with the infected zone.

“We’re first going to destroy all poultry within the core infected zone, clean up and disinfect, and then vaccinate chicken in the zone outside the infected zone,” Upma Chawdhury, joint secretary in the department of animal husbandry, said.

The home ministry has issued advisories to all states to intensify surveillance on poultry and report any unusual mortality to state animal husbandry officials. The health ministry has also begun to augment its stock of oseltamivir.

Animal husbandry officials are trying to recreate the recent history of the movement of poultry out of the infected farms in Navapur.

Officials said the source of the infection is unclear. “While it’s been said that migratory birds can bring the infection, there is no evidence to establish that they have actually done this,” Chawdhury said.

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