The spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza in several States is a matter of concern. There is an urgent need to stop the transmission among humans. One of the key lessons learnt during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is that early detection is key to containing the spread of disease. Bird flu cases have been reported from over a dozen epicentres mainly in four States— Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala. In addition, thousands of poultry birds have died in Haryana, while Jharkhand and Gujarat too have sounded an alarm, though the cause in these three States is still unknown. In Haryana’s Panchkula, which houses Asia’s biggest poultry hub, the count of chickens dropping dead has spiralled to 4.3 lakh in the last one month. While avian influenza virus crossing the species barrier and directly infecting humans happens occasionally, human-to-human spread has been rare. In 1997, the first case of transmission to humans was reported following an outbreak in a live bird market of Hong Kong and 6 out of 18 infected humans died of the disease. It was contained but re-emerged a few years later in various other parts of the world and caused hundreds of human deaths, particularly in Southeast Asia. The movement of infected poultry and migratory birds, and an illegal bird trade are believed to be the causes of the spread. Subsequently, several other strains of the virus such as H5N2 and H9N2 spread from animals to humans, thus becoming a global public health concern.
Migratory birds have been largely responsible for long-distance transmission of the virus into India during winter. It then spreads through local movement of residential birds and poultry. All the States must strengthen biosecurity of poultry farms, disinfection and proper disposal of dead birds. Bird flu outbreak can lead to devastating consequences for the country, particularly the poultry industry. There are many strains of the virus — some of them are mild and may merely cause a low egg production while others are severe and lethal. The States must be vigilant of any unusual deaths or disease outbreak signs among migratory ones. There is a need to step up vigil and ensure strict biosecurity measures and good hygiene. Equally important is to quell rumours and panic with a scientific approach to the situation. While a flu outbreak calls for the culling of birds, humans can safely consume properly cooked eggs and meat. The virus is sensitive to heat, and dies in cooking temperatures. In 2019, India was declared free from avian influenza, which had also been notified to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). However, the status will last only till another outbreak is reported.
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