Avian returns

Bird flu resurfaces, exposes weakness of testing system

 
By T V Jayan
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

There is worry that indiscrimi (Credit: Debojyoti Kundu /CSE)india's encounter with avian influenza seems far from over. Navapur in Maharashtra, where the avian influenza first broke out in January this year, had barely started breathing a sigh of relief at the containment of the deadly virus when a veterinary laboratory in Bhopal announced the presence of the pathogen in samples collected in Jalgoan district, 140 km away.

The Bhopal-based High Security Animal Diseases Laboratory (hsadl), on March 14, said a few samples collected around February 25, from four villages -- Hated, Marul, Salve and Sawada, have tested positive for bird flu.

Subsequently, about 60 rapid response teams, each consisting of five members, were dispatched to the affected villages with orders to cull all the birds to contain the spread of the disease. According to Uttam Khobragade, secretary, state animal husbandry department, as many as 92,000 birds have been culled in a 10-km radius of the affected villages and they have been subsequently sanitised. However, no human case of influenza has been reported.

The Union ministry of agriculture plans to cast the bird flu surveillance net wider. The state veterinary departments in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have been directed to survey poultry in a 200-km radius, covering 38 districts in the coming weeks. "This surveillance will become even more aggressive than before," says Upma Chaudhry, joint secretary of the Union animal husbandry department.

Not enough The authorities reacted promptly, but weren't reassuring enough. The 'hotspot of infection' is probably slowly shifting to other areas, as the Jalgaon outbreak indicates. More worrisome is the fact that the turnover time between the sample collection and testing is unreasonably high. According to hsadl officials, scientists tested 1,750 tissue and blood samples received from different parts of the country, whereas the laboratory received 7,000 samples received during the week ending March 19. The total backlog has crossed 12,500.

S K Bandyopadhyay, animal husbandry commissioner of India, admitted that testing of a large number of samples is pending because of the sudden arrival of a large number of samples at the Bhopal laboratory. However, samples from the affected regions are being given priority in testing.

The Union department of animal husbandry and dairying has swung into action to reduce the Bhopal laboratory's workload. The regional disease diagnostic laboratories (rddl) have been asked to undertake the first level of screening. These laboratories will run a preliminary test to weed out all non-influenza samples. The four rddls are located in Pune, Bangalore, Ambala and Kolkata.

The majority of birds culled in Navapur belong to commercial farms, whereas the Jalgoan ones are backyard poultry. Most of these birds are native varieties and have remarkably high resistance to several of the diseases. A meeting of experts, convened by the National Commission on Farmers in New Delhi on March 18, expressed concern about "the present policy of killing all native breeds of poultry indiscriminately." This practice is harmful as "we may lose the wonderful opportunity of identifying genetic resistance to serious diseases". S P S Ahlawat, director of the Karnal-based National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources, who was present at the meeting, said, "Most indigenous poultry breeds except Aseel and Kadaknath are facing extinction." India has 18 native varieties of chicken.

Weak detection The November 22 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly carries the opinion of one of India's most renowned virologists, T Jacob John of Christian Medical College, Vellore. He said, "We take bird flu seriously because of global peer pressure and publicity." He stressed the need to link animal (and bird) health to human health as nearly all emerging diseases in the past 50 years have originated in vertebrates and have crossed the species barrier.

A similar message was reflected in a comment made by the World Health Organization (who) earlier this year. It said several countries with avian flu outbreaks have weak health infrastructure, and weak capacity for the detection of such cases. More importantly, the full spectrum of h5n1 -- the viral strain that is currently spreading in different parts of the world, is unknown. "Milder cases of illness could be occurring, yet fail to reach the attention of health care staff," says a who document.

India too has a weak public health system with an annual health care spending of only Rs 200 per person.

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