Putting the avian calamity in a different perspective

Mohan Rajan

Ranikhet wanted to bunk school that morning. A student in Navapur village, home to 15 poultry farms and nearly two lakh chickens, she was plain tired of being marched off to the municipal school as usual. Or was it exam anxiety?

She feigned the cough and breathing difficulty in front of her parents and the doctor. Just then the good doctor got a call from the marketing director of a big pharma company, "Bird flu mimics ordinary flu but generally occurs in poultry workers or those who keep poultry in their homes. It occurs because of inhalation of the virus from the droppings. Tamiflu has just been released in India 10 days ago. We have the solution!" he beamed.

For the doctor this was more than mere coincidence. The opportunity was too good to be missed. The chance to reverse an uneventful career after years of medical study funded by his mother's sale of the family jewels and the handsome dowry brought in by his wife. Here was his chance for fame and fortune.

"Mad cow, anthrax, salmonella and now bird flu," screamed the media... "Maharashtra Chief Minister, facing his biggest crisis since the floods of July 2005, was caught contradicting himself and his officials several times, while the Centre also behaved in conflicting ways. The Health Minister proclaimed that chicken cooked to 70 degree Celsius for 20 minutes was safe, but the Indian Railways stopped serving chicken and eggs while the Indian Army banned the purchase of poultry products. India's Rs 35,000-crore poultry industry with 50-crore poultry and 30 lakh people depending on the rural industry lost Rs 30 crore in Navapur farms alone," the media raved and ranted.

Ever since culling operations began in Maharashtra on February 19, for over two days the culling teams kept away from poultry farms owned by local politicians in Navapur. When asked, senior officials simply smiled and said nothing. When pressed for an answer for this double standard, the reason given was that the farms did not fall within the 10-km radius of Navapur.

The marketing whiz kids at one of the leading white goods manufacturers decided to strike while the iron was hot. They had developed an air conditioner to counter the bird flu epidemic. A press release from their PR firm said the ACs have "Neo-Plasma Plus technology" and hence equipped with the K-AVF Filter that helps to kill 99 per cent of Bird Influenza H5N1 virus. "The technology has been certified by the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute of China Agricultural Scientific Academy," the PR girl told the media. The gaming companies got into the act too. One company soon invented a game to create awareness about the plight of the bird. "With people spending long hours at work, relaxation has to come through the computer," said the creator.

"With over a million computer geeks logging on for hours since it was launched, virtual chicken is certainly the safer way to enjoy your poultry," he chuckled all the way to his bank.

Not to be left behind were the homeopathy doctors. One of them announced a homeopathic cure for bird flu.

But this market savvy doctor was unable to cash in on the flu because a British Medical Journal,

Lancet,

had just debunked the whole science of homeopathy in a recent hard hitting article and also due to the fact that the good doctor, as is his wont, wanted bird flu victims to cough up a year's fees in advance. Cough up they did, but not the cash! Poultry industry leaders and the Government, instead of working in close coordination, were engaged in a duel. The Navapur District Collector issued a notice for providing infected chickens, in response to which the companies clarified that they maintained the highest safety standards The head honcho of one of the companies added that the poultry industry wanted fresh samples of infected chickens to be tested by different laboratories so that the National Laboratory's findings can be dismissed or confirmed.

Ranikhet was aghast at the controversy she had raked up. The high decibel blame game and conflicting signals that she had been instrumental in igniting had added up to a lot of destruction and confusion. Lakhs of birds had been culled.

An epidemic was possible only if people-to-people transmission took place and though this was theoretically possible, it had not occurred. The last words on

BBC Radio

before her father switched off the transistor were, "Stockpiling of medicines and culling of birds are not adequate to tame a flu, a fact emphasised by the United Nations.

Better surveillance, strengthening of veterinary infrastructure and re-structuring the pattern of co-existence where families and farmyard animals live in close proximity are where the solutions lie."

But look what her misadventure, aimed at missing school, had led to. A greedy doctor playing into the hands of an even greedier pharmaceutical lobby.

A headline hungry media looking for more eyeballs. Politicians who would stoop to conquer. An AC to counter bird flu with a testimonial from a dubious Chinese institute, much mud slinging between Government and industry, Ranikhet or bird flu?

Ranikhet, was it really bird flu?

Racy@TheHindu.co.in

(The author runs Paradigm Shift PR, Mumbai.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 1, 2006)
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