Does bird flu have the potential to turn into the next pandemic?

Central Government directs vigilance on bird-flu spread in India with WHO warning of increased transmission and heightened risk of potential human transmission.

Updated - May 08, 2024 05:04 pm IST

Published - May 08, 2024 03:55 pm IST

image for representational purpose only. File

image for representational purpose only. File | Photo Credit: PTI

Amidst the ongoing Lok Sabha election, several states across the country including Kerala, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand among others have been directed to stay alert and vigilant about the ongoing bird flu spread and the emergence of the highly pathogenic avian influenza now in cattle — detected in eight U.S. states.

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While the Central Government has asked for vigilance, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed deep concern regarding the increasing transmission of H5N1 bird flu to other species, including humans. ”The current bird flu outbreak, which originated in 2020, has now affected not only ducks and chickens but also cows and goats, which is why the flu has been described as “a global zoonotic animal pandemic,” it said, warning about the potential risk of the virus evolving to infect humans and gaining the ability for human-to-human transmission. Although there is no evidence of human-to-human spread yet, the mortality rate among those infected through contact with animals remains high. Over the past 15 months, WHO has documented 889 human cases across 23 countries, resulting in 463 deaths, equating to a mortality rate of 52 %

Central government in India maintains that Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), commonly known as Bird Flu, was first detected in India in the state of Maharashtra in February 2006. Since then, the country has experienced annual outbreaks of HPAI in different regions, leading to substantial economic losses. The disease has been reported in 24 states and union territories, resulting in the culling of over 9 million birds to control its spread. India’s approach to controlling HPAI follows a “detect and cull” policy as outlined in the National Action Plan for Prevention, Control, and Containment of Avian Influenza (revised - 2021). This comprehensive response includes the humane destruction of infected and exposed animals, eggs, feed, litter, and other contaminated materials. Additionally, measures such as restricting the movement of poultry and poultry products, disinfection and clean-up of infected premises, and a Post-Operative Surveillance Plan (POSP) have been implemented. It’s important to note that vaccination against HPAI is not permitted in India. The Central Government has maintained that with the long-term use of vaccination either the disease has become endemic and therefore widespread, or the infection in affected animals is too difficult to detect. Accordingly, the Government of India does not permit use of any vaccine against Avian Influenza in the country.

An article titled, ‘Bird flu in US cows where will it end’’ in Nature on May 8, 2024, notes that various forms of the H5N1 virus have been circulating since the 1990s. A particularly deadly variant that was first detected in 1996 has killed millions of birds and has been found in numerous mammalian species, including seals and mink. But until now, cows were not among the virus’s known hosts. US officials first announced on 25 March that H5N1 had been found in cattle, and cows from 36 herds in 9 states have tested positive as of 7 May. Tests of pasteurized milk have found no living virus. But the virus’s increasing ubiquity has made scientists uneasy. It adds further that from a human perspective, cows might be one of the worst possible animal reservoirs for influenza because of their sheer number and the degree to which humans interact with them. Culling poultry has curbed previous bird flu outbreaks, that isn’t a viable option for cattle. The animals are too valuable and, unlike birds, don’t seem to die from the infection.

Data released by the Central Government notes that India, is the third-largest producer of eggs (129.60 billion) and the fifth-largest producer of poultry meat (4.47 million tonnes) globally and in the fiscal year 2022-23, it made significant strides in the global market, exporting a notable 664,753.46 metric tons of poultry products, with a total worth of Rs. 1,081.62 crores (134.04 Million USD) to over 57 countries. According to a recent market intelligence study, the Indian poultry market achieved a remarkable valuation of USD 30.46 billion in 2023 with a CAGR of 8.1% from 2024-2032. 

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