Bird flu death alarms medical fraternity, but human transmission rare

The death of an 11-year-old boy due to bird-flu has set alarm bells ringing among the medical fraternity as well as the Rs 90,000-crore poultry industry, which was seeing some uptick in demand after months of low sale last year.

An estimated 60 million people are directly dependent on the poultry sector in India, and insiders are worried that the death might cause a drop in demand.

“We have not received any information from any of the poultry farms across the country — or even backyard poultry — regarding any sudden death of birds. If the disease strikes, there are set protocols of culling and compensation to the farmers,” Rickey Thaper, treasurer of Poultry Federation of India, said.

He said the alarm could not have come at a worse time as eggs and chicken prices are almost 20-30 per cent higher than last year, while demand was expected to be robust as both items are being consumed as immunity boosters in times of Covid.

The WHO says poultry and poultry products can be prepared and consumed as usual, with no fear of acquiring infection with the avian flu virus, provided one follows good hygienic and cooking practices. The virus is destroyed at a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes. After handling poultry and eggs, one should clean hands and other exposed parts, it said.

India last saw a widespread impact of bird flu in January this year when some states such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Chhattisgarh culled poultry birds after the disease was reported.

H5N1 virus, also commonly known as bird flu, is known to spread from chickens but other birds such as ducks and crow are also carriers of the virus.

The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has alerted all its centres across the country under the Integrated Disease Survei­llance Programme (IDSP) to look for suspected cases.

The IDSP State Surveillance Unit of Haryana has initiated an epidemiological investigation into the first documented human case of bird flu. The health ministry said close contacts of the deceased were under surveillance for any symptoms. The animal husbandry department has not found any suspected cases of bird flu in the area and has enhanced surveillance in a 10-km zone as a precautionary measure. “Epidemiological investigation by NCDC, involving animal husbandry department and the state government surveillance unit, is underway and appropriate public health measures have been instituted,” the health ministry said.

An AIIMS source had said the boy was admitted to the hospital on July 2 with pneumonia and leukemia. He died on July 12.

“His samples tested negative for Covid-19. It came out positive for influenza but was non-typable. It was sent to National Institute of Virology, Pune, where they confirmed it to be positive for H5N1 avian influenza,” news agency PTI reported quoting an unnamed source.

Vikas Maurya, director and head of department -pulmonology, Fortis Hospital said human-to-human transmission of bird flu is rare and not fast. “But, exposure to infected birds (such as in the poultry industry) can cause this disease. It is a respiratory disease like influenza and if it is severe it can even cause death,” Maurya said.

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