THE festive season has well and truly started. Schools and colleges have shut down for the Dashain break. The hectic traffic of Kathmandu has eased as people have started moving out to their ancestral homes. For those who remain in the capital, it is the time to wine and dine and have fun with their family and friends. But those who have waited for the whole year to gorge on their favorite mutton kababs and sandheko chicken are likely to be disappointed with the latest outbreak of bird flu at a poultry farm in Bhaktapur and reports that not all chicken and goats being brought into the capital might be fit for consumption. On Monday, the Directorate of Animal Health (DoAH) had to cull 780 chicken from a farm in Bode-3, Bhaktapur following the confirmation of a strain of H5N1 bird flu virus. Health officials are particularly troubled with the likely contamination of a nearby water collection facility, which supplies potable water to Kathmandu valley, potentially endangering human lives who consume the infected water. A highly contagious strain of H5N1 can, after some mutations, infect humans, although such a possibility is low. After all, since 2003, there have only been 566 confirmed human cases of bird flu worldwide, with 332 among them losing their lives.
Another troubling development is the confiscation of dead chicken and goats from vehicles entering the capital. Although the number of dead animals confiscated from the checkpoint of Thankot might not be big, it does raise an uncomfortable question over inspections at the entry points to Kathmandu. In all likelihood, the contingent with dead animals would not have been intercepted had the security personnel not been tipped-off by a Good Samaritan. This case again highlights the need to strengthen monitoring mechanisms for infected animals at important checkpoints during the festive season when businessmen are likely to cut corners to cash in on Dashain. Another related issue which has received little government attention is the dismal transportation facilities for animals. During the same raid, it was found that the animals being ferried into Kathmandu were crammed into very little space under unhygienic condition, which was part of the reason some of the goats and chickens had died.
DoAH officials have urged the public not to panic from the latest H1N1 scare and to consume chicken without fear, provided the meat is well-cooked. Most of the goat meat might also be safe. But that should be no reason for complacency. Health authorities must strengthen the process of early spotting of bird flu among poultry in order to make control mechanisms more effective. It is also important that entry points into Kathmandu are adequately manned by trained personnel to check the import of diseased animals and to control inhumane transportation of animals. Perhaps the death of a few animals at Thankot or the late response of DoAH in Bhaktapur might not be a big cause for concern. But if these lapses are repeated, only then might the true cost of neglect be evident. Touch wood.