Chicken Contingency

India’s response to the detection of the H5N1 avian flu virus in Maharashtra state is promising.

The H5N1 virus has been spotted in a lot more places around the world this week, both Europe and India have reported its incidence among birds. The Indian government has activated its contingency plans: including the culling of poultry in the surrounding areas and arrangements for field experts and vaccines. These steps may well help contain the post detection spread of the virus. Global fears of a pandemic and widespread public awareness did cause the Indian government to act decisively. (See previous post on India’s bird flu preparedness)

Going forward, India’s success in preventing the spread of the disease (which for now has only affected birds) will be determined by three factors: first, by events that preceded the laboratory detection of the H5N1; second, by the government’s determination and coordination in handling the outbreak; and third, by the impact of ‘backyard’ fowl breeders.

Actions of unscrupulous or ignorant chicken farmers may have lead to infected birds finding their way into stocks in other areas before this detection. This calls for more testing and vigilance across India, especially in the states neighbouring Maharasthra. The central government will need to coordinate its response with various state and local level health officials, and coordination of this nature is frought with difficulties. The contingency plans have all been worked out — the challenge is in their implementation, by all concerned parties at all level. It is difficult to estimate or control the actions of the informal fowl breeders. Addressing the risk posed by backyard chickens will be tougher given the socio-economic conditions of the breeders, who are often small farmers. The time for political resolve is coming.