July 26: Delhi today confirmed that the outbreak of bird flu in Manipur has been caused by H5N1, the deadliest among the avian virus strains that have been spreading across continents since 2003 and the one that poses the greatest risk to humans.
Officials said the confirmation would not change anything on the ground since intensive culling operations were already under way.
The source of the invasion by the avian flu strain into Manipur is unknown, but scientists believe detailed genetic studies of the H5N1 virus in isolation could provide some clues.
This is the second outbreak of H5N1 in India after the virus first surfaced in a district of Maharashtra in February last year. The Maharashtra outbreak was bigger, involving tens of thousands of poultry and the infection had spread to another district before it was stamped out.
Wild birds are known to carry the H5N1 virus. Last year, scientists at the government’s High Security Animal Disease Laboratory had conducted studies on H5N1 from the previous outbreak to conclude that it had come from Europe via West Asia. But bird specialists have pointed out there is no hard evidence for such a route of entry.
Officials estimate that about 1,50,000 chickens spread across 128 small poultry units in a 5-km zone around the infected farm, located at Chingmeirong on the outskirts of Imphal, would need to be culled.
More than half the birds are in backyard poultry farms, just as the one where the virus has emerged this time. Officials estimate that the “hot zone” also has a population of about 28,000 ducks.
Both the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) and the government-run Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in Imphal are fully geared up to treat people who might be affected by the virus.
The director of RIMS, L. Fimate, convened a meeting of all heads of departments and senior doctors today to discuss how to handle such an emergency.
The institute later opened an isolation ward with 12 beds for people with symptoms of carryover infection. Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital opened a similar isolation ward.
Director of health Th. Suresh held a series of stocktaking meetings with officials of the veterinary and health departments. “No human has been affected by the virus so far. But we are not taking any chances,” he said.
A team of doctors from the hospital and the medical directorate visited Chingmeirong yesterday to administer Tamiflu, a proven antidote to avian flu in humans, to members of the family that owns the farm where the H5N1 virus has been detected.
As many as 10 medical teams, each led by a doctor, fanned out into areas within a 3-km radius of the affected farm today to check whether anybody had symptoms of the disease.
“We have constituted 35 medical teams. We are also keeping medical teams on standby in the other districts. If required, we will requisition the services of teams from the other districts,” Suresh said.
Other states of the Northeast donned the battle gear, too. In Assam, the focus was on the five districts of Cachar, North Cachar Hills, Karbi Anglong, Golaghat and Jorhat. The district heads of these districts clamped a ban on import of poultry and chicken feed from both Manipur and Nagaland.
The Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram governments followed suit, banning the import of poultry from outside the state and preparing an action plan to combat the disease if there is an outbreak.
In Meghalaya, the veterinary and animal husbandry department began monitoring the sale and entry of poultry into the state.
The joint director of the veterinary and animal husbandry department, D. Lyngdoh, said all basic precautionary measures had been taken.
Delhi has long banned poultry trade with bird flu-hit nations such as China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, but officials are worried about people bringing poultry illegally across the frontiers.