Pilgrimage comes to a halt
horses, mules and donkeys in Uttarakhand are suffering from flu. The symptoms are the same as in human beings--runny nose, watery eyes, dry cough, loss of appetite and a general weakness resulting in stiff joints.
The highly contagious disease first spread this year around mid May: 48 horses and mules died. In the first week of June, 127 fresh cases of equine influenza were detected in Gaurikund-Kedarnath in Rudraprayag district, the worst-affected in the state. The animal husbandry department isolated and vaccinated the animals but the disease has thrown India's annual pilgrimage tour--to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri--into a tizzy. Over 1.5 million pilgrims a year depend on these pack animals for transport.
"The disease is caused by strains of influenza A, which are endemic in horses.Virus strains--equine 1 (H7N7) and equine 2 (H3N8)--cause equine influenza," said Jagmohan Aswal, a veterinary doctor. The samples had been sent to the National Research Centre on Equines in Hisar for analyses.
Vaccination is expensive. "We have so many horses and mules. We cannot afford Rs 500 for each vaccine," said Harsh Prakash Semwal, a horseman from Shersi village in Rudraprayag.
Horses suffering from the flu need adequate rest, which they don't get. They need about a month's rest if they suffer from the infection. The disease spread more rapidly on the Kedarnath route because the horses were tired. The route is very cold and equines get very little time to rest or eat, said a horse owner along the route.
To prevent further spread, the state government has set up 13 health camps in Gaurikund. "There are 35 doctors round the clock in these camps," said V B Singh, director of Uttarakhand livestock department. "We have treated over 1,500 horses and mules and are keeping a thorough vigil on the equine population in the state," he added.
The state government assured the flu would be controlled and efforts would be taken to ensure the remaining months of the pilgrimage are smooth. Chopper services have been introduced for pilgrims.
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