Indian authorities discover masses of dead birds as bird flu sweeps across the country, alarming a public already shaken by the coronavirus.
Since the end of December, thousands of geese, ducks, crows and other birds have been found dead in nine states, from Kerala on the southern tip of India to the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in the north. No human infection has been reported.
Officials working to stem the new outbreak have detected two different strains of avian flu: H5N1 and H5N8. They believe the virus was carried to India by migratory birds from Central Asia before spreading to poultry, prompting authorities to cull hundreds of thousands of birds in states such as Haryana and Kerala.
In Europe, France is slaughtering 600,000 poultry to contain its own outbreak of H5N8, the United Kingdom and Belgium having recently discovered cases. Japanese and South Korean authorities have also reported cases of bird flu.
“We never know when it will become a pandemic. This is why you have to be extremely vigilant, ”said Bivash Pandav of the Wildlife Institute of India, a government-affiliated research institution. “We are much better prepared than 10 years ago, and the credit goes to Covid.”
Local and central government authorities in India have increased testing of dead birds for the presence of avian flu, although scientists have said the true extent of the outbreak remains uncertain.
Some environmentalists have said that insufficient monitoring of birds in the wild, including live birds, makes such outbreaks more difficult to prevent. Abi Vanak, who studies zoonotic diseases at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said the coronavirus pandemic underscores the urgency of such work.
“Human health is closely linked to animal health and environmental health. And therefore, human health should not be viewed in isolation, ”he said. “If the pandemic teaches us one thing, it should teach us.”
India has recorded more than 10 million cases of the coronavirus, the second highest in the world, and more than 150,000 deaths.
Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, a conservation research organization, said the destruction of habitats such as wetlands has exacerbated epidemics by forcing more birds to concentrate in fewer places.
For example, thousands of carcasses have been discovered around Pong Dam Lake in the Himalayan foothills, a popular birding spot, including the famous migrating bar-headed goose.
India has experienced several bird flu epidemics in 2006 and 2008, which led to the culling of millions of birds.
The recent fear has hammered the growing poultry industry in India. Prices have fallen as anxious consumers avoid chicken meat and eggs, although authorities have sought to assure the public that cooked poultry is safe.
Prices for broilers have fallen by nearly a third in the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, for example, according to the Indian Express newspaper.
Less than a year ago, producers had to swallow a similar drop in prices after unfounded rumors that people could catch Covid-19 from chickens, prompting consumers to avoid poultry.
But Farah Ishtiaq, an ecologist at the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society, said the lack of regulation around the Indian poultry industry, especially on its hygiene or transport practices, posed a continuing risk.
“It is very easy for infections to spread between poultry farms,” she said. “We need strict monitoring and regulations on how to maintain hygiene and poultry farms near densely populated areas.”