The specter of bird flu is haunting Nepal again, and thanks to the inept handling of flu-hit poultry farms, even human population could be in harm’s way. After the confirmation of bird flu at a poultry farm in Kathmandu’s Bafal on Sunday, yet another poultry farm has been found infected. Significantly, the second infection site is just 100 meters away from the first. There are reasons to believe that inappropriate handling of bird flu infection at the first site caused its spread to the second. The lapse of local authorities, who are supposed to maintain vigilance over infected farms, was evident from the fact that the infected poultry which had been identified on Sunday had ‘disappeared’ by Tuesday when a team from the Central Veterinary Laboratory arrived at the site to destroy the infected stock. According to the owner of the farm, he had personally killed and disposed of the nearly 2,500 chicken in his farm. The team suspects the owner sold off the bird flu-suspect poultry, which could already have entered major cold stores in Kathmandu.
It is important to understand that there is no immediate threat of bird flu spreading to humans. The majority of human infections occur from direct or indirect contact with infected poultry, and most bird flu viruses do not infect humans at all. But there is always the small risk of the virus mutating inside the human host into a potent strain, and if that happens there is a risk of a widespread epidemic among humans. Even so, it bears emphasizing that there is as yet no evidence that the disease can spread after food is properly cooked. Nonetheless, the World Health Organization has time and again highlighted the importance of controlling the disease in animals to decrease risks to humans. Incidents like Tuesday’s, where a whole batch of bird flu suspect poultry goes ‘missing’, could pose a serious hurdle in this effort. What can be done to minimize such incidents and make poultry farmers more cooperative with the authorities?
One solution could be instituting strong punishments for poultry farmers who are deliberately putting people’s lives at risk. But such efforts will prove inadequate so long as the government is not ready to sufficiently compensate farmers for their loss. Most of those involved in poultry farming come from poor financial backgrounds, and would have started their business on the back of burdensome loans. In this situation, the decimation of an entire batch of poultry risks devastating their only means of livelihood. It is this desperation which makes them cut corners or delay reporting suspected flu cases.
Current compensations are woefully inadequate. While a fully grown egg-laying chicken could fetch between Rs. 2,000-3,000 in the market, the government compensates with a paltry Rs. 130 to kill the same chicken. The farmers would have no incentive to hide infection or sell infected poultry if they were assured of due compensations. It might be argued that bigger compensations are not feasible, given the rate at which bird flu cases are being spotted right across the country. But surely, expense of a few million rupees is a pittance compared to the truly horrific economic and health consequences of a bird flu epidemic. What is amply clear is that the current way of handling bird flu infections is not working. Vital changes to this faulty mechanism are long overdue