Eighty-four poultry farms report deadly bird flu virus

Avian influenza, or bird flu, continues to spread in Bangladesh, with 26 of the country’s 64 districts now affected, health officials say.

On 22 January the Department of Livestock confirmed the presence of the H5N1 virus in 84 poultry farms across the country.

To date, over 315,000 poultry birds have been culled at 109 farms, while veterinarians are struggling to inspect many thousands more at farms throughout the country.

No human cases have been reported thus far.

Bird flu created panic in the southern city of Barisal recently after an outbreak of the disease was confirmed at two backyard farms within the city - prompting the authorities to cordon off a one kilometre radius around the two farms and culling close to 2,000 birds.

“No new outbreak has been reported since the cordoning off of the area and culling of the birds. Sick birds were reported from some places, but they were reported H5N1-negative,” district livestock officer Mohammad Jainuddin Mollah, said.

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But fears of a possible spread of the infectious disease remain, with workers who took part in the culling now being closely monitored.

“At the moment, we are giving medication to those workers who took part in the culling operation, Mollah said, citing an acute lack of resources.

“There are 1,212 commercial farms in the district and we don’t have enough personal safety gear for the 110 field staff in the district who directly handle sick birds,” he complained, adding: “Affected birds need to be handled with the utmost care.”

Any case of human infection by the H5N1 virus would increase the chances of the virus’s mutation. This, in turn, might pose a great threat to human beings, the official said.

Lack of awareness

For Mollah, well aware of the challenges ahead, it was the lack of public awareness amongst local communities that was particularly worrying.

“We advise people to separate sick birds from healthy ones; to dispose of poultry faeces in covered pits; to kill and bury sick birds,” he said. “We also tell them to wash eggs with detergent, and to cook eggs and meat well, before consuming them.”

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Men and live birds at a Dhaka chicken market spend hours in the same place

Proper hand-washing is a major deterrent against the virus, Mollah added, citing efforts by various international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) and Save the Children in raising awareness levels.

But despite these efforts, including seminars and meetings with rural communities over the obvious risk factors, levels of awareness remained “very low”, he conceded.

In the village of Naya Para in Kahalu sub-district of Bogra District in northern Bangladesh, Mahfuza Begum lost all 62 of her chickens over the past three weeks, but does not know what killed them.

“I did not inform anyone about the disease. No one had told me to do so,” the 42-year-old replied. “Some of the hens died while hatching their eggs. They died just sitting on their eggs,” she sobbed.

Outbreak in West Bengal

Meanwhile, news of a significant outbreak of the virus in West Bengal across the border in India is raising concerns among poultry farmers, especially as 17 of Bangladesh’s 26 affected districts border on the Indian state.

Bangladesh, home to more than 150 million inhabitants, shares a 4,000km border with India, much of it with West Bengal, where the smuggling of poultry and eggs into protein-hungry Bangladesh is reportedly rampant.

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Culled chickens being dumped into a ditch for burial at a government poultry farm

“We get cheap chicken and eggs from West Bengal. No one can seal off the border. We are in great danger,” Haji Hashim Ali, a poultry wholesaler at Dhaka’s Karwan Bazar, warned.

However, a spokesman for the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force charged with guarding the nation’s borders, said strict restrictions on the cross border movement of poultry and eggs were in place and were now being vigorously enforced.

India’s West Bengal state is currently struggling to cope with its own bird flu outbreak - described as the third and worst outbreak to strike India since 2006. Eleven of West Bengal’s 19 districts have now been affected, resulting in over 50,000 birds being culled.

The West Bengal government announced on 22 January it would begin culling two million birds this week.

Adding to people’s fears, hawks and other migratory birds have reportedly dropped dead out of the sky, local media sources report.

On 17 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement that India had bigger trouble on its hands than earlier believed - hinting that the virus outbreak could perhaps be one of the worst ever - and more severe than previously encountered.

According to the WHO, bird flu has killed over 200 people in 12 countries since 2003, the vast majority in Asia.