Following the discovery of H5N1 virus, hundreds and thousands of chickens were culled in Sunsari, Ilam and Panchthar last week. Perhaps this is the first time such a huge number of birds have been affected by bird flu in Nepal. However, this was not the first outbreak of the year. Bird flu had hit Bhaktapur few months back and a number of birds were culled to prevent the spread of the virus. This should have prepared the government for issuing timely warning to the farmers of eastern Nepal. But instead, the government tried to keep the public in the dark. In this write-up, I dwell on nature, causes, effects and treatment methods of bird flu virus.
The H5N1 bird flu virus had first appeared in Jhapa district on January 16, 2009. Ever since it has appeared and reappeared every year. It is important to make timely diagnosis and declaration of the disease. And government authorities should notify the public as soon as possible so that the people can take some precautions. Affected Farmers in Sunsari claim the infected birds were sent to the nearest laboratory in Biratnagar and then to Central Veterinary Laboratory to identify and confirm infection on January 18. But the authorities were silent on its etiology and said the case had been sent to Weybridge Laboratory in the UK for further confirmation.
Strangely, virus had been confirmed as bird flu in its preliminary tests in Regional Veterinary laboratory in Biratanagar and Kathmandu. Naturally, the government should have notified the public right at this point. The result should have been publicized much earlier and disease should have been declared. But nothing of the sort happened. This is not time taking process. A test called RT-PCR (Real Time Polymerase Chain Reaction) takes no more than 24 hours for confirmation of virus. I wonder what kept our government so long to announce the outbreak despite such an easy and fast identifying procedure in place.
Moreover, there is a provision in Bird Flu Control Order 2065 BS” to declare the status of the disease right after the test comes out “positive.” Clearly, there was no any legal binding for the authorities to keep mum. In fact, it is an utter negligence on the part of the authorities to let the infected birds die one by one in huge numbers. Had there been timely declaration, farmers would have at least received some compensation for loss. Farmers from the eastern Nepal have claimed that they had to bear the loss of around seven to eight million rupees owing to the outbreak. It has come to the fore that all 3500 parent stock and 2800 other layers died at PK Poultry and Pathibhara poultry respectively. Worse still, the farmers were not given any compensation despite the loss of this scale.
Government’s ham-fisted handling of the latest outbreak of avian flu indicates how unprepared the country is for a pandemic.
Bird flu is not only an avian disease. It has zoonotic potential and may transmit to man at any point of time. Once it catches man, the ultimate consequence can be death! There is a provision of government declaring emergency zones, in an around the affected sites, before carrying out operations like “stamping out”. But our government failed on this front too. Instead, remaining birds were culled haphazardly in poultry farms of Pathibhara. It has been learnt that relatively healthy birds in nearby farms have been left alive. This is likely to spread the virus again as these birds bear the potential threats.
Bird flu, also known as Avian Influenza, is a viral disease which commonly affects chicken, ducks, pigs and humans. Infected birds will transmit the virus to humans via oral and fecal secretions. Out of numerous strains, H5N1 is considered the most potent and infectious. Once affected, the inflicted birds can display one or all of these symptoms: Loss of appetite, diarrhea, inflammation around head region and muscular hemorrhage. Layer birds will stop hatching eggs.
BIRD FLU IN HUMAN
There has hardly been any case of avian influenza in human beings in South East Asia. Generally, the H5N1 strain doesn’t affect humans. However, people like farm workers, butchers, abattoir workers and those who remain in direct contact with live birds run the risks of infection. This is equally true to those who eat the meat of such birds. Humans may acquire this disease once they are exposed to the infected environment for long time. World Health Organization (WHO) has reported 282 human deaths from 2003 to 2010 out of 471 cases. So far, this disease has been reported in eight Asian countries out of 15 infected countries worldwide.
Among humans, symptoms start to show anytime between one and six weeks of infection. Initially symptoms of common flu start to show up and in the later days fever, headache, sore throat, throat pain, ocular inflammation will follow as visible symptoms. Also there could be chest pain. Ultimately death may take place due to compromised respiratory system. In humans 40 percent mortality has been detected. Though rare among humans, the infection may go endemic once it is transmitted from one human to others. Scientists have been studying its potential.
Certainly, no one can ignore the probable risk that may arise from its pathogenicity.
Precautions: We can keep bird flu threats at bay if we take some precautions. One should stay away from infected birds. Chicken meat and eggs should be consumed only after thorough cooking, at least at 70 degree Celsius and for 30 minutes. Infected birds should be properly disposed off and one should wash hands with soap and water after handling egg, bird and its meat.
Treatment: Oseltamivir and Zanamivir are the drugs used for prophylactical treatments. WHO and other international health agencies avail these drugs. In 2006, United States discovered vaccine against H5N1 but it has not been brought to pubic use so far. But there is a provision to distribute drugs if and when necessary.
The writer is a Secretary of Nepal Veterinary Association and former executive member of Nepal Health Research Council