NST Online
January 29, 2008

India’s West Bengal state has since Monday been slaughtering chickens on a “war footing” as bird flu spread to new areas of the highly-populated province of 80 million people.

The disease has now been found in 13 of 19 districts in the eastern state, prompting fears it may reach local capital Kolkata which has a population of 13.5 million people.

The local government said it could revise the target number of birds to be culled up to three million, of some 20 million fowl counted in the state.

“We are worried the H5N1 virus was confirmed in samples from villages just 22 kilometres from Kolkata,” West Bengal animal resources development minister Anisur Rahaman said.

“If it is required, culling teams will work throughout the night.”
More than 1.5 million birds have been culled since the outbreak was reported a fortnight ago.

New Delhi on Monday tried to calm nerves while the price of poultry products dropped in West Bengal and in some of India’s 28 other states, including New Delhi.

“Since Avian Influenza is restricted to certain parts of districts affected in West Bengal, eating properly cooked poultry and poultry products is perfectly safe in areas not affected by virus in West Bengal and rest of the country,” India’s agriculture ministry said in a public statement.

It added 950 government-appointed culling teams were working round the clock in West Bengal, where a fourth of its population is in the zone of possible infection.

Two states hemming West Bengal sealed their borders with the stricken districts after TV networks in separate reports said the Marxist-ruled province bordering Bangladesh was yet to offer an adequate response to the crisis.

In New Delhi, butcheries reported a steep fall in poultry sales, with some establishments warning businesses would take a hit if the situation in West Bengal was not brought under control.

West Bengal authorities raided backyard traders at night to avoid resistance from locals who, fearing financial loss, would try to hide the birds or lock up their houses to prevent the chickens from being culled.

“There was no resistance, no hostility. They swiftly culled the chickens after paying compensation,” minister Rahaman said.

Poultry owners say they have been devastated by the mass cull, with the government paying only about 40 rupees (one dollar) for each dead chicken, compared with the 80 rupees they could earn on the market, excluding egg sales.

But state finance minister Asim Dasgupta has put losses to the local poultry industry at only about 10.5 million rupees.

Humans typically catch bird flu by coming into direct contact with infected poultry, but experts fear the H5N1 strain may mutate into a form easily transmissible between people. No human cases have been reported in India.

IN JAKARTA, a 23-year-old Indonesian woman died of bird flu last Sunday, bringing the toll to 100 in the nation worst-hit by the virus.

“The woman died (last Sunday) but we just received the results that she’s positive with bird flu. The total number of deaths is now 100 out of 124 positive cases,” Djoko from the Health Ministry’s bird flu information centre told AFP.

The woman, who lived in eastern Jakarta, was admitted to hospital after suffering high fever, difficulty in breathing and pneumonia on January 19, doctor Djoko said.

She was later transferred to the capital’s Sulianto Saroso infectious diseases hospital on January 26 where she died a day later.

There was no information on whether the woman had come into contact with sick birds, the usual mode of transmission of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.

“The risk factor is still unclear, the investigation team is still on site,” said Djoko.

Earlier Monday, a nine-year-old boy tested positive for the virus, the health ministry said.

The boy, from the Depok region on the outskirts of Jakarta, who also died Sunday in the Sulianto Saroso hospital, had been admitted to a local hospital on January 23 and transferred two days later.

Djoko earlier told AFP the ministry was still trying to assess the risk of further infections in the boy’s neighbourhood.

“Our teams are still on site, visiting his home and his neighbourhood, but so far we do not know yet whether the boy had any contact with infected poultry or birds,” Joko said.

Humans are typically infected with bird flu by coming into direct contact with infected poultry, but experts fear the H5N1 virus may mutate into a form easily transmissible between humans, sparking a deadly global pandemic.

The concern stems from past influenza pandemics. A pandemic in 1918, just after the end of World War I, killed 20 million people worldwide.

The virus is now endemic in birds across nearly all of Indonesia’s 33 provinces.

India is also battling its worst outbreak of bird flu but has so far not suffered any human infections.

The disease has spread to more than half of West Bengal state since the H5N1 strain was first confirmed in dead chickens more than a week ago.

West Bengal says it needs to slaughter at least 2.2 million birds to control the outbreak.

Migratory birds have been largely blamed for the global spread of the disease, which has killed more than 200 people worldwide since 2003. – AFP

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