Crisscrossing migration puts India at high risk, say experts

India has one of the highest incidences of bird flu outbreaks globally because it lies underneath three transnational flight paths of migratory birds, officials have said.

An outbreak of avian influenza has gripped four states, but it poses little risk to humans at this stage, the officials said, as the Union government put all states on alert to stop its spread and economic impact.

“The current outbreak has been caused H5N8 strain, but there are other strains circulating globally,” said Dr C Tosh, principal scientist of the Bhopal-based National Institute of High Security Animal Disease (NIHSAD)

In Kerala, mostly poultry have been affected, a federal official said, while in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan,thousands of crows have been impacted. In Himachal Pradesh, mostly migratory birds have taken ill. Several hundreds have died.

“Reports show that the pathways of infection are mostly through migratory birds, although cross-contamination can’t be ruled out,” Tosh said.

After confirmation of positive samples from NIHSAD, bird flu has been reported from the following epicentres: Baran, Kota and Jhalawar (Rajasthan), Mandsaur, Indore and Malwa (Madhya Pradesh ), Kangra (Himachal Pradesh), and Kottayam and Allapuzha (Kerala).

Several streams of flight paths of migratory birds crisscross the country’s skies. India is also a terminal destination for many such streams, making it a biological hot spot for bird disease, according to Sobhit Pal of the Bombay Natural History Society.

For instance, Amur falcons take off from Nagaland, racing southwards and flying over three oceans to South Africa and onwards to Mongolia.

The feathered flier clocks 22,000km, outstripping the air distance between Delhi and San Francisco, the world’s longest commercial flight way, by nearly 8,000km. It takes the bird roughly two months to make the journey.

Nearly 370 species of birds, from the northern wheatear to yellow-rumped flycatcher – crisscross India from Europe, Russia and Mongolia each year, according to Pal.

This brings joy to birders, but also makes the country vulnerable to bird flu, which has occurred 24 times across states since the first outbreak 2004. The last outbreak happened in 2016, infecting poultry in Delhi, Kerala, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. Data from states show that back then, nearly 400,000 poultry was culled due to the outbreak.

Bird flu also has serious economic impacts. Government records show nearly Rs 400 crore have been paid to poultry farmers from 2004 till 2016 as compensation for mass killing of birds.

When the poultry business gets hit, prices of maize, used as feed, tend to crash, hurting farm incomes, said Abhishek Agrawal of Comtrade, a commodities trading firm.

Most cases in 2016 too were determined to be of the H5N8 type.

“H5N8 type is highly pathogenic but it isn’t known to easily transmit to humans,” a government official said on condition of anonymity, citing a World Health Organization (WHO) update on India.

All states, particularly those already infected and their neighbours, have been asked to follow bio-security measures for implementing the National Action Plan for Control and Containment of the Avian Influenza guidelines, which prescribe proper sanitisation, separation, use of PPE kits, surveillance and culling, among other measures.

The agriculture ministry has said the National Institute for High Security Animal Diseases, which functions in coordination with the World Organisation for Animal Health, along with four specialised regional labs, is coordinating efforts to contain the outbreak.

The government hasn’t banned poultry for human consumption. All bird sanctuaries with lakes have been advised to keep a close watch.

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