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Dr Santanu Bandyopadhyay

Dr Santanu Bandyopadhyay describes the measures put in place to eradicate avian flu in India
Dr Santanu Bandyopadhyay describes the measures put in place to eradicate avian flu in India

Keeping free of bird flu

On August 11th, India reported to the OIE that, after four months without further outbreaks and continued testing, it was free of avian flu. Dr Santanu Bandyopadhyay, whose Animal Husbandry Department has led the campaign to eradicate avian flu, describes the measures put in place.

The outbreak of avian influenza (see box) earlier this year has had a major impact on the poultry industry. As India's poultry market is largely self-sufficient, the outbreak has adversely affected the local economy more than export, with the exception of eggs. For more than two months the public stopped consuming poultry or poultry products, and prices dropped. Poultry farmers wanted to get rid of their flocks, even if they were not infected. As a result, farmers with a healthy flock also lost out, because despite the drop in sales, they were not provided with compensation.

India had several outbreaks of bird flu between February-April 2006 in three out of its 29 states in the western and central regions. Authorities killed more than one million birds to contain the disease and paid more than 30m rupees in compensation to farmers. India's $7.8bn poultry industry reported hundreds of millions of dollars of losses due to the bird flu outbreaks.

Determining source of infection

Clearly the disease is going to stay around for some time, and it will continue to change or mutate. So it is important to invest in long-term research. The most important issue is for us to determine the source of infection. We have fairly conclusive evidence that the strain of the outbreak of avian influenza in India is similar to that found in China. However, the area where it occurred is not close to the border. We have considered the possibility of infection by migratory birds, but there is no east or western movement of migratory birds in this area. We also know that infection is unlikely to have been passed through illegal smuggling, because our indigenous production is good enough to cater for the whole country. Illegal trade is not economically viable. So we need to conduct more research to ascertain the origin of the virus.

Preventative measures

In the meantime, we have introduced a law banning imports of poultry or poultry related products from infected countries. To prevent further outbreaks, we are raising public awareness and advising farmers on improved methods of poultry husbandry and bio-security. We are assessing different systems of poultry production - whether it is small-scale, backyard, or large scale. Most large commercial poultry producers are primarily those who maintain pure lines of poultry. They already have adequate bio-security measures in place because they have to maintain absolutely disease-free conditions. However, we have encountered commercial farms where wild birds move between the lakes and feeding or water troughs. We are advising poultry farmers, especially in backyard farming systems, to use improved housing structures, which will prevent birds from coming into contact with infected birds, and prevent predators from attacking them.

Dealing with diagnosis

As a government, our priority is now to improve diagnostic techniques, and to reduce the time it takes for samples to be referred for diagnosis. In developing countries, the diagnostic process can take days due to the lack of infrastructure or communication facilities. When the virus came to India, we realised that our laboratory infrastructure was not adequate. We had one state-of-the-art bio-safety level-4 laboratory designated for providing avian influenza diagnosis in the country. Now, we have identified regional satellite laboratories as there is the need for evenly distributed laboratories, so that we can minimise the time taken to refer samples for diagnosis.

Capacity building is key

The second most important thing is provision of adequate human resources. At the time of the outbreak, we brought in operational procedures to contain the virus, such as stamping out, sanitising the infected area, providing compensation for culling, and education. We only had outbreaks of the virus in a very small area, and we realised that if there were simultaneous outbreaks in other parts of the country, we would have an acute shortage of trained manpower to carry out the operation on a larger scale.

To vaccinate or not?

Vaccination is another area that we need to consider carefully. Although we had a strategy to vaccinate poultry, after the outbreak the logistics of wide-scale vaccination were not viable. Vaccination followed by surveillance would have cost more than stamping out or culling flocks. But it is still an option, and we are weighing various possibilities. For example: what are the risks that low-level infection will persist despite vaccination, and appear later when flocks are not protected? Could the presence of vaccinated poultry, in which the virus is still present - albeit in a very small dose - increase the possibility that the virus will 'jump the species barrier', and mutate into a human form of the disease? There is also the concern that poultry vaccination will have further implications for international trade, and for public health.

To date, India has declared itself free from avian influenza, as per the OIE prescribed procedures, and we have notified OIE accordingly. We have not adopted any vaccination of poultry, but instead we have contained the disease so far by stamping out and disinfecting affected premises. There has also been control on movement of poultry, man and materials. Although there have been no human cases of the disease reported in India as yet and we have declared ourselves bird flu-free we will not let down our guard and we will maintain a close vigil over poultry.

Date published: September 2006


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