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[NEW DELHI] India is investigating media reports that a major poultry producer suppressed evidence of the nation's first bird flu outbreak by paying local people to bury dead chickens.

Upma Chawdhry, a senior agriculture ministry official, told reporters in Delhi yesterday (21 February) that chicken deaths were first observed in Navapur in Marahashtra state as early as 27 January, but the government only found out on 8 February through a local newspaper report.

With commercial poultry farms in the area under scrutiny, the Maharashtra state government yesterday charged Pune-based poultry producer Venkateshwara Hatcheries with concealing chicken deaths.

The claims, if true, would mean that India lost 12 days that could have been used to contain the outbreak and raise awareness of the threat. In addition, anyone burying dead birds risked being infected with the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus.

Tests are underway on samples from 95 people with respiratory tract infections in Navapur. Twelve people who were in contact with the infected poultry have been quarantined. 

Venkateshwara Hatcheries had attributed the deaths to the more common Newcastle disease, known in India as ranikhet. Even so, given that tens of thousands of birds died, the company was obliged to notify the ministry's animal husbandry department, but did not.

Its managing director Anuradha Desai, says it is not the only poultry supplier in Navapur, and is being unfairly singled out.

Parts of India's poultry industry continued to deny there was a bird flu outbreak, even after the presence of the H5N1 virus was confirmed on 18 February.

On 20 February, The Hindustan Times printed a statement from the National Egg Coordination Committee, a 25,000-strong association of poultry farmers, saying that the chickens died from Newcastle disease.

But Shantanu Kumar Bandyopadhyay, commissioner of animal husbandry in the agriculture ministry, says there is "no ambiguity" in test results from the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal that detected H5N1.

In a separate development, India yesterday set up a scientific committee to investigate the source of the infection (see Egypt and India race to control bird flu outbreaks).

"The source of the infection is still not known," Bandyopadhyay told SciDev.Net.

In February 2004, India banned poultry imports from countries that had had H5N1 outbreaks. No dead migratory birds — another possible source of the virus — have been found in Navapur.

India has extended the radius around the outbreak within which birds will be culled from three to ten kilometres. However, the culling operations did not meet their initial target of killing 500,000 birds in the three-kilometre radius by Tuesday evening.

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