In September 2019, India declared its freedom from avian influenza, But over a year later, the bird flu scare has returned. The highly pathogenic H5N1 virus has now spread to 10 states in India. While first cases of bird flu were reported in Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, soon enough Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh also joined the list, and now states like Delhi, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand have also confirmed it.
Amid the preparations for the rollout of Covid-19 vaccination drive across the country, the centre and states have also begun the efforts to contain the spread of the avian influenza virus. The centre has asked the states and union territories to monitor the situation tracking the water bodies, bird markets, poultry farms and zoos. The health officials have been alerted and PPE kits and other accessories used for culling the birds and disposing of their carcases are being provided.
Wholesale poultry market temporarily shut in Delhi
In the national capital, the import of live birds has been banned and the government has shut Ghazipur’s wholesale poultry market. Though the centre has urged the state governments not to close the poultry market to avoid panic.
At the same time, North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) has asked restaurants to stop the sale of roasted chicken. And most of the affected states have begun culling the poultry birds as a measure to prevent the spread of H5N1 virus.
Essentially, the scare for bird flu is high but the centre has clarified that so far there has been no case of human transmission and urged everyone to eat properly cooked chicken, preferably at 70 degrees Celsius.
Why humans should worry about bird flu
Bird flu or avian influenza, as the name suggests is a viral infection. Though the virus is mostly restricted to birds, it can also infect humans and other animals. It has three subtypes A(H5N1), A(H7N9) and A(H9N2). And a majority of humans get infected with influenza A (H5N1) and A(H7N9).
The disease is transmitted to humans through direct contact with infected live or dead poultry. But, thankfully, so far no sustained human-to-human transmission has been identified. That means it is difficult to transmit the disease from person to person.
Can H5N1 virus kill humans?
What is important to understand that the virus that kills birds has the potential to cause death to humans also. As per World Health Organisation (WHO), after contracting the disease the mortality rate in humans is about 60%. That’s is why preemptive measures are taken to control the disease at its source and avoid the risk to humans, the culling of infected birds is one of those measures.
Safe to eat chickens and eggs now?
Now the most important question that needs to be answered: if infected birds can transmit the H5N1 virus to humans, should not people immediately stop consuming chickens and eggs?
Experts say it is safe to eat chickens if it is cooked properly. As avian influenza virus can’t sustain heat and normal cooking temperature of 70°C is enough to kill the pathogens. But to ensure this, standard precaution has to be taken and good hygienic practices have to be followed.
Who are at risk of contracting H5N1 virus?
So how do people contract the disease? It has more to do with the handling of infected poultry birds. According to WHO, a large number of H5N1 infections in humans are linked to the way raw meat is handled. Be it during the home slaughter of the bird or carelessness in bringing the meat home from the market or not adhering to standard hygienic practices during subsequent cooking preparations.
Remember, avian influenza is transmitted to humans through contact with infected bird feces, nasal secretions, or secretions from the mouth or eyes.
That is why people like poultry farmers, butchers (or people exposed to infected birds), healthcare workers attending the infected patients and close family members of infected persons are at a greater risk of contracting avian influenza.
What are the symptoms of avian influenza?
The symptoms of infection include fever, cough, sore throat, body ache, abdominal and chest pain, and diarrhoea. It can also lead to severe respiratory and neurological issues. The patient should promptly be taken to the hospital for treatment and prevention of death.
It is important to note that vaccines for H5N1 avian influenza have been developed, but they are not ready for public use.
One should also be mindful that seasonal influenza vaccination doesn’t protect against H5N1 infection.
What is the history of bird flu
The first avian influenza infection was reported in Hong Kong in 1997. The virus naturally develops in wild waterfowl (bird) and spreads to the poultry birds.
In India, the outbreak of H5N1 influenza was first reported in 2006. The disease starts spreading between September to March when migratory birds arrive in India.
Between 2003 and 2014, WHO recorded 701 cases of H5N1 and 407 deaths among humans but so far no case of human infection has been reported in India.