India facing a bird flu disaster

According to a health official in India, the country's latest outbreak of bird flu could be disastrous.

West Bengal's animal resources minister, Anisur Rahaman says unless authorities are able to cull all poultry in the affected districts within three or four days, the state will face a disaster.

Five people reportedly quarantined with symptoms of the virus after handling affected poultry have returned negative results but authorities are becoming exasperated because dead birds are being sold at markets with poor locals apparently "feasting" on cheap poultry they cannot usually afford to buy.

They now have appealed to other states to help with the cull as to date only about 300,000 birds have been culled.

So far eight districts in the eastern state of West Bengal have been hit by the virus and more than 100,000 bird deaths have been reported; health teams are struggling to cull two million chickens and ducks.

The country has suffered three outbreaks of bird flu since 2006 and had the tests on the five been positive, they would have been India's first case of human infection.

India is home to 1.1 billion people, many of them poor and chickens and other birds roam around freely in backyards and fields.

To make matters worse there have been instances of poultry being smuggled out of affected ares before culling teams arrive and chicken shops have appeared overnight along the main highways with people queuing for the cheap meat.

The problem is also exacerbated because many people are poor and illiterate and reluctant to give up their poultry.

Farmers too are sometimes ignorant regarding basic hygiene and dead birds have been dumped in village wells and ponds because people are unaware of the risks from the H5N1 virus.

This turn of events is a huge concern to the authorities as it is by handling infected poultry that the disease is transmitted to humans.

There is also the worry that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form easily transmissible between humans triggering a pandemic.

Experts believe that is more likely to happen in poor countries such as India with very large populations.

To date the H5N1 bird flu virus has killed more than 200 people worldwide since 2003 and billions of birds have died or been culled because of it, with migratory birds the culprit for the global spread of the disease.

Next door neighbour Nepal, which has banned poultry imports from India since 2006, has placed all its border posts on high alert, while another neighbour Bangladesh, is also battling with its own serious outbreak and experts there are also warning that the situation is far more serious than the government admits.

Government officials say the disease now affects seven of the 19 districts in West Bengal, a combined population figure of 24 million people.

A major outbreak of bird flu in the north-eastern state of Manipur last year was contained as were outbreaks in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

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