Delays marked Panchkula administration’s response to bird flu scare

As it was confirmed on Friday that the en masse deaths of birds at poultry farms in Panchkula’s Barwala belt were due to avian influenza, it has come to the fore that deaths had been taking place since early December last year.

Moreover, even as reports from the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases, Bhopal, came positive on Thursday night, the Panchkula administration failed to impose restrictions in the affected areas immediately.

It was only on Friday evening that the Haryana animal husbandry and dairying department officially declared two pockets as the epicentre of bird flu, and listed out various measures, including planned culling of 1.66 lakh birds at five poultry farms.

Over 4.37 lakh poultry birds have died in the area. A Panchkula health official, who did not wish to be named, said that during the field survey, some farm owners reported that deaths had been taking place since December 1.

However, it was only on January 3 that some samples were sent by the Haryana animal husbandry department to Northern Regional Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, Jalandhar.

However, the lab found these samples of “poor quality” and had to send its own team to collect them afresh on January 5. Those reports are still awaited.

Meanwhile, on January 4, the ministry of health and family welfare constituted an experts’ team to monitor the situation. It held a meeting with the Panchkula administration on January 7 (Thursday). The same night, reports from the Bhopal laboratory came positive.

It mentioned that five samples of “dead birds (chicken)” taken from Siddharth poultry farm, Kheri, and Nature poultry farm, Dandlawar, Ganauli, have been found “positive for H5N8 avian influenza” virus.

However, it was on Friday evening that the Haryana government declared the outbreak, turning the area within a kilometre of the two epicentres as “infected zone” and 1-10km as “surveillance zone.” The five affected farms are Siddharth, Narender, Naveen and Sunil in Kheri village and Nature in Dhandalwar, Ganauli.

“As per guidelines, alert should be issued immediately and movement must be restricted from farms even when there is a suspicion and samples are taken. However, the administration delayed the process. Even after the final report was out, they took a night and entire day to issue the notification,” said an expert, who is part of the five-member central team, who did not wish to be named.

The expert said it will get very challenging to break the chain of transmission, as poultry products have been transported to so many different parts of the region, thus “spreading the infection further”.

In fact, Hindustan Times found that even till Friday evening, movement was not restricted at some of these farms. A tractor-trailer was seen leaving a farm with empty egg trays and even the driver was without mask.

‘Less pathogenic, but risk remains’

“Although risk to human health is there as H5N8 can be transmitted from birds to human beings, it is less pathogenic, which means there are lesser chances of catching infection,” said a central government expert.

Chances of spread of infection is more among those who have long exposure to these birds.

“However, we are worried that if its mutation changes during transmission to humans, it will get difficult to control the spread, and like any other flu, mortality will be more in elderly and in people with low immunity,” said the expert.

Task force constituted

The Panchkula deputy commissioner in a press release issued on Friday night said a task force has been constituted. It comprises of senior officials and will work on a war footing, he said. The team will distribute medicines in the affected areas and help in burying the culled birds

Haryana animal husbandry and dairying minister JP Dalal said avian influenza virus is sensitive to heat. Consumers should ensure that all parts of the poultry are fully cooked (no pink parts) and that eggs, too, are properly cooked (no runny yolks). Persons involved in food preparation should wash their hands thoroughly and clean and disinfect surfaces in contact with poultry products.

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