Deaths in the zoo

Bird-watching: After the death of 14 water birds in the Delhi zoo, officials have gone on a hyper-cleanliness drive Photo: V Sudershan

Suspected bird flu deaths in the Delhi zoo have come at a time when India was declared free of the virus

The Capital was reeling under the dual assault of chikungunya and dengue the past month when a third flu rocked the animal world. On the morning of October 18, the National Zoological Park — popularly the Delhi zoo — shut its gates to visitors.

The zoo, one of the largest in the country, witnesses a daily footfall of 10,000, with the number touching 22 lakh annually. It continues to be closed.

Fourteen of its water birds have so far died of suspected bird flu. The last reported death, which came in on Wednesday, was of a captive bird. Worried that the contagion might spread to the zoo’s other denizens, the officials have shut the gates and following the protocol informed the Central environment ministry, called in scientists, and switched to a hyper-cleanliness mode. Chemical baths were mandatory before entering animal/bird enclosures, disinfectants were sprinkled around the zoo, personnel were given strict instructions on hand washing and bathing, and, of course, strict adherence to reporting of sick birds. The fact that the closure came a month after India was announced bird flu-free only made matters worse. There had been no reports of bird flu since May, when over 100,000 chickens were culled in Karnataka.

The deaths in the Capital, however, weren’t restricted to the Delhi zoo. The Ghazipur murga mandi (chicken market) was also hit and has since been put under heightened security; Shakti Sthal, Hauz Khas Deer Park, and the district park in Paschim Vihar have all been shut after samples tested positive for the H5N8 avian flu.

All the sites are being monitored closely.

There are, however, migratory birds’ islands in Delhi that have remained ‘clean’ so far and have reported no flu-related deaths. Ecologist TK Roy says, “Since long-distance migration hasn’t started into Delhi we cannot blame the outbreak on that solely.” Delhi, he says, has about seven sites which are favoured by migratory birds, but none of them have manifested this infection.

Others cite the lack of cleanliness in surrounding areas, domestic cross-infection and climatic conditions as likely factors for the spread of the disease.

Amitabh Agnihotri, director, Delhi Zoo, says, “The virus is always present in the birds and sometimes they get the right climatic and other conditions to proliferate, which causes deaths. We have reinforced stringent hygienic practices to ensure that the infection stays under control and fatality is minimal.’’

He stresses that the flu is not a threat to human beings as of now. “It is found in wild birds. In the zoo it was found among the non-resident birds that frequent the zoo,” he adds.

The Delhi zoo, home to around 1,400 animals, reptiles and 130 species of birds, was in the news this May after it lost 46 deer to rabies. A team of scientists from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, visited the zoo — now called ground zero — collected samples, and sensitised and trained the zoo staff about biosecurity measures against avian influenza.

“The scientists are now conducting a genome study to ascertain the cause and origin of this H5N8 virus. Those who are handling the dead birds are being given tamiflu, an antiviral for flu treatment. Spots where the migratory birds come in are also being closely monitored,” says R Khan, the zoo curator.

Meanwhile, test results of the Ghazipur murga mandi samples have come back ‘negative’. The Delhi government on its part has issued an 11-point health advisory instructing people to avoid direct contact with bird secretions and carcasses, and consume only completely cooked chicken and eggs.

Bird flu, says Khan, has caused the park a huge economic loss.

“We get around 28,000 people during Eid and Diwali. Now, because of the H5N8 avian influenza, the zoo will remain shut for the next three months.”

“We have started fumigation at the main gates. Most strains of bird flu do not infect humans. Some strains, however, are known to cause fever, cough, sore throat, pneumonia, respiratory diseases and sometimes even death in humans,’’ he adds.

Gopal Rai, Delhi development minister, who recently met the coordination committee formed to combat bird flu, says, “We have asked all agencies having any water bodies under their jurisdiction to maintain strict vigil. Action will be taken if there is any lapse on their part. All government departments have been asked to spread lime powder around every waterbody. Officials are also spraying anti-virus sodium hypochlorite on birds.”

Currently, the death toll due to suspected bird flu stands at 81 across Delhi. Three crow carcasses were found near the water body at Shakti Sthal near Rajghat on Monday. The lake around which bird deaths have been recorded is quarantined, says an animal husbandry department official.

Once the deaths stop, tests will be conducted every 15 days and the spots won’t be reopened until authorities are confident that they are virus-free.



Published on November 04, 2016

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