• 28/02/2008

The masked official in white protective gear and bright blue gloves grabbed a squawking hen by its legs, held it upside down and twisted its neck in one swift motion. The bird expelled a mass of possibly contaminated faeces that sprayed the man's mask and faces of unprotected village boys crowding around. The writhing body was then dropped into a jute sack full of fowls with broken necks, crying out their death throes. The people carrying their fowl for culling were not given preventative Tamiflu tablets or masks. The area wasn't sanitized with bleach after the team left with sacks of dead birds.

The crude culling in Dakhalbati village in Birbhum district's Rampurhat I block indicates West Bengal's lack of preparation in dealing with the crisis. Within a fortnight of the confirmation of the avian influenza outbreak on January 15, the virus had spread through 14 of the state's 19 districts. An estimated 132,625 chickens were killed, mostly backyard poultry.Despite the state government's claim that the situation was "under control' and more than three million chicks had been culled by February 3, the flu continued to spread.

Not that there hadn't been adequate warning. In July 2007, the Union Ministry of Agriculture's department animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries (dahd) had called a meeting in Kolkata where animal husbandry authorities from all eastern and north-eastern states were present. They were warned of the risks from the bird flu outbreaks in neighbouring Bangladesh, where backyard poultry had been badly hit.

Virologists had also warned that the floodplains of West Bengal were especially vulnerable to avian influenza. The large number of waterbodies and high humidity conditions are ideal for the infection to spread, they said. High density of poultry and human population upped the risk factor one notch. Birbhum district, for example, had over 3.2 million poultry and a human population density of 658 per sq km. Maharashtra's Nandurbar district, where the virus first cropped up in February 2006, had 3.1 million poultry and a human population density of 260 per sq km.

West Bengal authorities took a month to confirm bird flu after people had alerted them in mid-December

Senior state animal husbandry officials confirm they had been on alert. "Poultry samples were sent for tests whenever bird deaths were reported in the past 10 months and over 3,500 samples had tested negative for bird flu until mid-January,' says D N Banerjee, assistant director, department of animal resources development (ard). But these claims fly in the face of the state machinery's failure to act on early indications of the outbreak back in mid-December.

Tamiflu pills: not reaching all targets
Delayed action
Residents of Birbhum's Margram village, where the virus was first detected, say they reported chicken deaths to the block development officer and block livestock development officer as early as December 15. No action was taken. Again, on December 28, one Murshida Bibi of Margram's Mahipara hamlet had informed local officials that over 20 of her chicken had died suddenly. This time, the officials reported the matter to the Birbhum district magistrate. But it would be another fortnight before officials would come to Murshida Bibi's house to collect poultry samples to send to the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal.

District officials did not impose the interim steps recommended by dahd after the samples were sent for testing: there was no restriction on movement of poultry outside the affected area. Residents say poultry traders took advantage of this and quickly shipped chicken out, helping the virus spread.

Culling operations started on January 16. Another week passed before the state acknowledged the seriousness of the crisis and sent senior officials to monitor containment operations. By then the virus had affected at least nine districts. ard department was forced to revise its culling target: from the initial 0.4 million, the number had increased seven-fold to 2.8 million by January 29.

West Bengal animal husbandry officials said the difficulty in pinpointing core outbreak areas had delayed containment. "The chicken samples sometimes did not come labelled, so we could not identify their origin,' a senior ard official said.

More to blame for the spread is the state government's inability to prevent chicken from being smuggled out of the affected areas and the ham-handed manner in which culling operations were carried out. There was a total lack of coordination between the ard department, district officials and the panchayats. The Down To Earth correspondent saw rapid response teams (rrt) in the affected areas waiting for hours for villagers to turn up with their fowl. In many areas, like Budge Budge in South-24 Parganas and Mahendrapur village in Birbhum, no panchayat official was on site to help the cullers, who had no idea where to start. Culling teams were often seen functioning without masks and sacks to carry the dead chicken.

rrt members often had to face public wrath over inadequate compensation. At a press meeting, dahd secretary Pradeep Kumar said culling operations were constrained by the directions from the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare's (mohfw) against free movement of culling teams. The health ministry of course had sound reason: people participating in culling operations had to be quarantined.

A large section of the cullers themselves lacked basic information about the virus. Many refused to take Tamiflu pills, though who guidelines recommended a tablet a day for all rrt members while operations are on, and for another week to 10 days after the operation. Some of them told Down To Earth they refused Tamiflu because they suspected side-effects.

Lack of coordination between authorities has hamstrung control measures by a and local hostility

On January 28, some 180 rrt personnel in Birbhum walked off without permission following an altercation with senior district officials about their quarantine stay. Though district officials tried to tell them they needed to stay under observation for their own safety, the men refused to listen.

In yet another horrific safety lapse, thousands of culling team members were allowed to go home without spending the mandatory 10 days in quarantine, putting at risk their families and all other persons they came in contact with

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