hile several States of India roil under the latest outbreak of avian influenza, the strategy of mass culling of poultry birds, to contain the spread, is a knee-jerk reaction adopted by health authorities. This is not the first bird flu outbreak in India. Repeated outbreaks have been occurring since 2006 – all met with the same response: killing millions of birds to ‘contain’ the disease.
The government has refused to understand why India has become the home of avian influenza. Since there is no understanding, they refuse to change the policies that are causing this epidemic again and again. This is a disaster of our own making. Poultry farm workers, and billions of poultry birds, are disproportionately affected and the first victims of this disaster. Collateral damage includes health workers who act as first responders. And God knows how many people who eat the dead chickens, in the belief that they cannot get the disease.
The reason for this epidemic is rooted in intensive animal agriculture, or factory farming, and the entire gamut of unsustainable animal husbandry practices. Abysmal poultry farm conditions make these farms high risk environments – as incubators of bacterial and viral pathogens. Air samples, collected and tested from such farms, have demonstrated a toxic cocktail of virulent strains of pestilence.
It is a known fact that the Epidemics and Disease Control Department of WHO routinely collects samples of birds from poultry farms, to detect, monitor and control emerging, new strains of influenza viruses. The reason this is being done is because of the deadly nature of the avian influenza virus, with its capability to mutate rapidly and turn into a deadly flu pandemic.
Is India’s own response to the avian flu adequate? The Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying (DAHD), under the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying, has come up with an Action Plan 2021 for Prevention, Control and Containment of Avian Influenza. The Health Ministry has expedited a team of public health experts, from the National Centre of Disease Control, to monitor outbreak in affected States. Strategies include: disease surveillance, coordinated responses between Heath & Animal Husbandry Departments, Municipalities, District Administration, and SOPs for containment.
How effective are such strategic interventions in a bid to battle the bird flu? Is enforcement actually happening at the State, District and Block levels? Once again, it is baffling to observe the failure of the government to regard the outbreak as a man-made disaster that is inherently connected to animal husbandry/poultry farming practices. The presence of a powerful factory farming lobby, that has influence with the government, will never allow for open acknowledgement of the fact. Businesses and profits worth crores ride on this industry. Meanwhile, the unholy nexus will continue to safeguard industry interest over public interest. We have been battling for the last 10 years for one simple thing, that would stop not just avian flu but many other diseases like diabetes and tuberculosis in hens. What is this magic bullet? Simply increasing the cage size of the poultry kept chickens so that they can move freely.
Such a simple thing. But every time it is going to be done, the Poultry Association contacts the politicians and bureaucrats in the Animal Husbandry Ministry, the Environment Ministry, the FSSAI – and voila, it is shelved again. We are in court to get this done – but the court does not even realise the importance of this small measure.
This unholy nexus between the industry and the government is reflected in the official narrative built around the bird flu. Anticipating a dip in consumer demand for poultry products that could cripple the industry, the DAHD has issued public statements emphasising that “meat and eggs are safe for consumption if prepared/cooked at adequate temperatures.” Deconstructing such a white lie, I will only ask the public to use their common sense. How can flesh, or eggs, from a diseased and infected animal ever be safe for consumption? This defies logic.
Till date, the Centre has been careful not to categorise the current strain of avian influenza virus (H5N8) circulating in the country as “zoonotic” i.e. the ability of the virus to transmit from animals to humans. Official descriptions of the virus include “highly pathogenic”/ “highly contagious”, “confined to birds only.” The rationale for quelling public fear and not creating a panic situation, by underplaying the outbreak may be understood to an extent. Yet, it also the government’s duty to understand and convey the magnitude of the fact that the virus is of animal-origin and has tremendous capability to ingeniously mutate and jump the species-barrier. Novel viruses, that emerge from animals, mean humans do not have natural immunity to fight off the virus. We still lack a universal flu vaccine that will be effective against all strains of influenza viruses
Avian influenza viruses, once they transmit to humans, are associated with a high mortality rate. The cause of death will eventually be severe respiratory collapse. In the case of the H7N9 avian flu virus outbreak in China in 2013, 60 per cent of infected people died.
It is frightful to see the rapid increase of H5N8 virus zigzagging across Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan. Meanwhile, as the avian flu contagion comes to a boil, the country is still in the midst of battling the coronavirus. Are we going to lurch from one to another?
The government must engage in a systemic review of India’s current factory farming/animal husbandry sector. The welfare standards for poultry birds must be raised higher. There has to be an overhaul of the industry, and its regulation is of utmost importance. Even the European Union Parliament recently voted in favour of greater regulation of factory farming and better animal welfare standards.
Culling of animals is the most convenient measure in any situation of zoonotic disease outbreak. A parallel may be drawn to the recent culling of the captive mink population in Denmark over fears of Covid-19 transmission from these animals. The mass genocide was a tragedy of epic proportions. Minks are highly intelligent, sensitive creatures – cursed, because of the demand for their beautiful fur, to live a miserable lifetime on fur farms. The farms rank low in animal welfare, hygiene and sanitary standards, closely mirroring the conditions prevalent at a poultry farm.
Our public health policies cannot operate in silos. It is grossly speciesist, morally bankrupt and shortsighted to disregard lives of non-human animals. Did we kill humans who spread Covid? No, we evolved standards to contain the spread. But the only thing we do, in an exactly similar situation with a strain of the same flu, is to just kill the birds and pay crores of compensation for poultry owners who caused this epidemic to begin with. They should be sent to jail instead of being rewarded.
To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org