The Cheat Sheet

How serious is the bird flu situation?

TV Jayan | Updated on January 13, 2021

The new year has brought some bad news for the ₹1-lakh-crore poultry sector. The outbreak of avian flu, or bird flu, reported since the beginning of January, has affected poultry sales, particularly in North India where the daily business has been hit by as much 70 per cent in the last several days. The price of poultry has halved while that of eggs are down by up to 20 per cent. So far, bird flu has been reported from 10 States. Barring two States — Kerala and Haryana — the infection is mostly seen in wild birds or crows.

What is bird flu?

It is a contagious and virulent disease caused by what is known as Type A influenza viruses. These viruses normally affect birds. Even though all types of birds are said to be susceptible to infection, domestic poultry, ducks and turkey are more vulnerable as the density of birds in commercial farms is extremely high and helps the infection reach epidemic proportions rather rapidly.

These viruses are identified based on characteristics of two proteins they harbour — hemagluttinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). While HA has the ability to latch on to the lung cells it comes in contact with, NA helps virions — the entire virus particle, that is — to escape the cell’s confines to spread to other host cells. There are 18 distinct sub-types of HA and 11 NA, making it possible to have 198 possible combinations. The currently circulating strain of bird flu is said to be H5N8, which is quite lethal for birds.

When was it first spotted? Which are the States affected?

Bird flu is normally reported in countries that receive waves of migratory birds. In India, the disease spreads mainly through migratory birds, which are a potential reservoir of these deadly viruses, coming into India during the winter months, from September-October to February-March. In 2020, the infection was sporadically reported from different parts of the country, but the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, following the containment operations, declared the country free from bird flu in September last year.

But in early January, the first lot of cases was reported in ducks in Alappuzha and Kottayam districts of Kerala, where the Vembanad Lake receives a large number of migratory birds. Subsequently, deaths of crows and migratory birds were reported from many States. Samples taken from them and analysed at the Bhopal-based National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases showed that they harboured the bird flu virus. Last week, Barwala in Panchkula district in Haryana also reported an outbreak of bird flu in egg-laying poultry birds, leading to a massive culling operation.

In Kerala, too, tens of thousand birds were culled. As of now, the infection is confirmed in 10 States, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Is it safe to consume poultry products?

Though the bird flu virus can potentially infect humans through mutation, the chances are remote with the current H5N8 strain. Moreover, the Indian way of cooking meat — boiling and deep frying — will not allow the virus to survive and as a result it is safe to consume.

Is it true the poultry industry is hit by the outbreak?

The rumours have led to people cut down on poultry consumption in many States, particularly in North India. According to the Poultry Federation of India, which has over 1,200 members, sales of chicken and eggs are down in North India by 70 per cent and 15-20 per cent, respectively.

Both wholesale and retail prices of chicken have also fallen drastically in last one week. Banning of entry of poultry by States like Delhi and Madhya Pradesh has also hit the business.

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Published on January 13, 2021

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