India culls birds as eight people show symptoms

Wearing protective gloves and masks, health officials and farm workers slaughtered thousands of chickens in western India today, a day after the country reported its first outbreak of bird flu among poultry.

Scientists were also gearing up to test several people in the area who have reported flu-like symptoms.

More than 50,000 chickens have been culled in Navapur, a major poultry farming region in western Maharashtra state, since early today, Anees Ahmed, state minister for animal husbandry said.

“Culling has begun,” said Ahmed. “We are taking the help of farm workers also to destroy the poultry.”

Heavy earth movers were being used to bury the carcasses, he said. Top health officials would meet with heads of some 52 big poultry farms in the area through today, he said.

“They have to be told that they must begin destroying their stocks of chicken,” said Ahmed. “We have to work with them and co-ordinate the culling.”

Some 500,000 birds will be slaughtered within a 3km radius to check the spread of the highly-pathogenic virus.

The government announced an aid package for affected farmers, a day after officials confirmed that at least some of the chickens, of the 30,000 that died in Navapur over the past week, were infected with the H5N1 strain.

The viral strain has killed 91 people since 2003, most of them in Asia.

Police officers have sealed off the affected area and are preventing people from entering the farms.

A team of 200 veterinarians and assistants had reached the area, more than 400 kilometres (250 miles) northeast of Bombay.

Poultry farmers were distraught. “Most farmers still can’t believe the news and are hoping the lab tests confirming bird flu are wrong,” said Ghulam Vhora, member of a Navapur poultry farmers’ association.

“We are looking at a very difficult future. All of us will have to start again from scratch, and I don’t know how many of us will survive,” Vhora said.

As a precaution, authorities hospitalised eight people in the area who were suffering flu-like symptoms.

“This is just a precaution. There is no indication they have any symptoms of bird flu,” said Maharashtra Chief Secretary Prem Kumar, the state’s most senior bureaucrat.

The National Institute of Virology in Pune, which is approved by the World Health Organisation, will begin testing samples today from the sick people, said Milind Gore, the deputy director of the institute.

The majority of bird flu’s human victims have lived in Asia, but recent deaths have been reported in Iraq and Turkey, according to the WHO. Most of the human cases of bird flu have been through direct contact with sick birds, it says.

Scientists fear the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that passes easily between humans and spark a global flu pandemic.

Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla Ltd. has said a generic version of the drug Tamiflu – thought to be the best prevention against a pandemic – will be available in pharmaceutical stores across the country early this week.

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