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The deadly bird flu virus, which has killed millions of birds and dozens of people in East and South-East Asia, recently reached Russia and parts of Central Asia. Governments in Europe are discussing strategies to prepare for the virus, in case migratory birds carry it there from Asia.

But in India and its sleepy poultry markets in particular, health and hygiene seem low on the priority list.

For the past year, India has checked random samples of chicken blood for H5N1, the virus that has caused havoc in other parts of Asia. But traders and farmers at Ghazipur market, which supplies all of Delhi's poultry retailers, are armed with just one ill-equipped doctor and some philosophy.

M. P. Singh, from the State Veterinary Hospital, is in charge of checking chickens sold here, in India's largest wholesale poultry market.

In the noisy, dusty market, Singh has a room containing only a table and chair. When he needs to take blood samples, he brings along bottles from his hospital. The traders offer their slaughtering knives to slit a chicken's throat for its blood.

Germs cannot survive
hot spices and temperatures,
says one poultry trader
Photo Credit (WHO/P. Virot)
Singh says his main job is to ensure that only freshly killed chickens are sold and that all other dead birds are destroyed. But outside the market, 800 to 1,000 dead birds are sold every day for 45 rupees (US$1) each. Singh has no way of knowing if they died at the knife or of disease.

Traders shrug off fears. No disease can hurt Indians as we cook chicken in high temperatures and with hot spices, says the elderly Mohammad Papay. No germs can survive this, he adds.

Authorities agree: measures are in place, risk is low

Outside the confusion of the market, India's agriculture ministry agrees with Papay that the risk is low. It says India has a system for regularly testing chickens in key locations for signs of bird flu.

"We send a person to collect blood samples from several collection centres in Delhi, the market being one of them,'' says Rambir Sharma, assistant director of the Delhi state government's animal husbandry department.

From these collection points, the samples travel to the state laboratory, which then sends them on to the Regional Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Jalandhar, where they are tested for infections other than the bird flu virus.

Eventually, the samples are sent to Bhopal, where the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory scans them for H5N1.

Back in Delhi, Sharma does not know about the virus that causes bird flu nor about the Bhopal laboratory. He knows only that samples must go to Jalandhar to get tested for avian influenza every three months. They are sent more frequently when newspapers report bird deaths.

Singh's job is to make sure only
fresh chickens are sold
Photo Credit (WHO/P. Virot)
India set up this system a year ago when the avian flu struck South-East Asia.

The agriculture ministry says the precautions are satisfactory. "We have a world class facility in Bhopal and there are collection centres in every state,'' says its deputy commissioner, A.B. Negi.

In fact, the Bhopal testing and diagnostic facility is only the fifth of its kind in the world, and the first in a developing country. The others are in Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

WHO and FAO: international organisations get stuck in

The World Health Organization (WHO) also feels that, in the absence of a disease outbreak in India, random checking is enough. It set up a committee of Indian health and agriculture officials and WHO staff to monitor the situation and advise on outbreak prevention measures.

"In a large country like India, the state of the abattoirs varies from unhygienic to satisfactory standards, and from highly organised to informal," says Salim Habayeb, the WHO's representative in India.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is also keeping a close eye on India. On 23 August, it launched a network of surveillance and laboratory diagnosis of highly pathogenic infections in South Asia. India is the headquarters of its regional activities, which also cover Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Because India has not yet had a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza, and Pakistan has, Pakistan will be the regional testing centre, says the FAO's South Asia bird flu coordinator Manender Oberoi.

"We have to be vigilant about surveillance, to watch and take rapid action," says Oberoi. "Rapid diagnosis will be important."

On the wings of migratory birds: fears and denial

Oberoi's organisation is concerned that migratory birds will carry the virus across India's borders from China.

In April 2005, thousands of wild birds in a Chinese nature reserve died of H5N1 (see China: migrant birds 'open flight path for bird flu'). These included bar-headed geese, winter visitors to India. Experts have warned that the surviving birds at Lake Qinghai could carry the virus as they migrate west and south for winter.

"The danger is mainly from geese, and we have to be alert throughout their migratory route,'' says Oberoi.

Wings of fate? Bar-headed geese spend the
winter in India
Photo Credit (Vijay Cavale)
Despite warnings, the fear of migratory birds has not reached those in the poultry business. Some farmers believe bird flu cannot cross borders, or at least not the Himalayan Mountains that lie between China and India.

Ranbir Singh, who runs a large poultry farm in Rajasthan agrees. "Not, the Himalayas," he says. "No virus can cross them."

"How can chickens get the virus from geese that live by themselves on lakes?" Singh asks.

In recent weeks, the virus killed thousands of birds as it spread from China and South-East Asia into Russia and Kazakhstan. Experts suspect migratory birds are carrying the virus.

And although Indian farmers appear unconcerned, the bar-headed goose's migratory route is well known among Delhi's wildlife officials.

"We get them here in Delhi in the water reservoirs at Kalindi Kunj near Okhla, as well as in Sultanpur national sanctuary in Gurgaon and Bharatpur sanctuary in Rajasthan," says S. S. Negi, a wildlife inspector in Delhi's forest department.

In May 2005, P. M. A. Hakeem, secretary of the agriculture ministry's animal husbandry department wrote to the chief secretaries of all Indian states, saying that surveillance needed to be intensified in light of the risk from migratory birds.

He asked that samples from birds in nature reserves and around lakes where migratory birds might nest, be sent to the Bhopal for testing.

But Oberoi is not convinced that the government is fully prepared to detect H5N1 in migratory birds. "Surveillance mainly depends on non-governmental organisations such as Wetlands India, Birds of Calcutta, and the Wildlife Trust of India," he says, adding that the migratory birds will arrive at sites right across the country, from Tamil Nadu in southern India to Gujarat in western India and Karnataka in southwest India.

It wouldn't be the first time…

It wouldn't be the first time that a bird flu virus arrived in India. In 2002, before South-East Asia's bird flu epidemic, scientists from the King's Institute of Preventive Medicine in Chennai, who primarily work on human influenza, stumbled across residues of H5N1 in three poultry farm workers near Chennai.

Suspecting a virus not normally found in human beings, they sent the samples to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Two years later, according to a senior scientist with the Chennai institute, the CDC confirmed signs of a low-pathogenic strain of H5N1. The Chennai scientists said the virus could have come from migratory birds in a nearby sanctuary.

A senior official at the Indian Council of Medical Research says the virus corresponded to a strain of H5N1 that was isolated in 1997 and cannot be linked with the current virus circulating elsewhere in Asia.

More recently, according to vets at Delhi's State Veterinary Hospital, the Bhopal testing centre has confirmed the presence in India of another low-pathogenic bird flu virus, H9N2.

H9N2 might be 'low-pathogenic', but it is causing enough death and destruction for chicken farmers to seek to limit the number of chickens it kills.

Mahipal Singh, a poultry farmer in Gudgaon in Haryana, accuses the government of indifference. He says it knows that a vaccine could help save his chickens, but is deliberately looking the other way.

Photo Credit (WHO/P. Virot)
Consequently, some private drug companies are making large profits by selling a H9N2 vaccine without government approval.

"Vaccinating one hen costs three rupees. Companies are selling vaccines worth tens of millions of rupees all over the country,'' says S. Dutta (name changed) a doctor from Delhi, whose clinic stocks the vaccine.

The vaccine, which has no official name is known as 'anti-variant'. "We doctors recognise it," says Dutta.

"If the government wants to prevent a mishap then it should come out with a vaccine,'' he adds, referring to both H9N2 and H5N1. 

Government action?

In August 2005, India's health minister Ambumani Ramadoss chaired a national consultation to assess the country's preparedness for bird flu. He suggested strengthening the health and agriculture ministries' joint monitoring group, formed in January 2004.

Ramadoss warned that India must improve its infrastructure, disease surveillance and reporting system. He added that India needed more hospital beds, vaccine stocks and medicines.

Both the FAO and farmers are enthused by the minister's concern, though farmers are sceptical as to how far the government will go.

"Would he really get us vaccines?" asks Mahipal Singh. "So far we have been left at the mercy of private companies."

Meanwhile, in Delhi, M. P. Singh collects chicken blood samples, and sends them to a laboratory in Jalandhar, which sends them on for testing in Bhopal. Despite Singh's loyalty to his government department, his cynicism is evident.

He picks an argument with the market authorities for allowing traders to cut meat without wearing gloves. But he does not comment on the health ministry's assurances.

Let us hope for the best, is all he says.

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