KOLKATA, India (Reuters) - An outbreak of bird flu in India’s most densely populated state could spiral out of control, officials said on Tuesday, as the disease spread to a seventh district.
The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu was found among poultry in Malda, infecting seven of the 19 districts in the eastern state of West Bengal, according to state officials.
“There is every chance of the virus spiraling out of hand if it’s too late,” said Sanchita Bakshi, the state health services director.
Nepal meanwhile banned the import of poultry products from neighbor India. In Bangladesh, authorities culled thousands of chickens after the virus spread to Natore district.
At least 24 million people live in West Bengal’s seven affected districts. Officials worry the virus could spread to humans and were collecting random blood samples from villagers.
Experts say the H5N1 strain could mutate into a form easily transmitted from person to person, leading to a pandemic.
“We are taking all precautionary measures and checking human samples with symptoms of cough and cold,” said A.C. Mishra of the National Institute of Virology in Pune.
“Thankfully, the reports have all been negative so far,” he said by telephone.
Central government authorities have confirmed H5N1 infections in only two of the seven districts, based on time-consuming tests from India’s central animal disease laboratory. But state officials say the other cases are all the same strain.
The World Health Organization has said it was India’s most serious outbreak.
The state health minister, Surjya Kanta Mishra, denied a newspaper report five people in West Bengal had been quarantined with bird flu symptoms.
“We don’t have a single concrete suspected human infection case also,” he said.
Villagers in West Bengal blamed the state government for not informing them about the hazards of bird flu as dozens admitted roasting dead birds and eating them. The virus is usually passed on through close contact with infected birds and their feces.
Nearby states, including Meghalaya and Bihar, have banned import of poultry from West Bengal and were checking chickens for bird flu.
Veterinarians and scientists said infected birds could have been smuggled out of the affected districts.
“It is difficult, there is no checkpost, there is no such border,” Sushil Kumar Modi, Bihar’s deputy chief minister, told Reuters in Patna, Bihar’s capital.
In Bangladesh, health workers have continued killing birds as the virus spread to 26 of its 64 districts. The country has struggled to contain the H5N1 outbreak since March.
Nepal said it was worried about the virus’s spread.
“We have alerted all border check posts to be on guard against any import of poultry,” said Baikuntha Parajuli, a top official of the government’s animal health department.
A week after the first blood samples from dead chickens tested positive for bird flu, the West Bengal government has now raised the culling target to 2 million.
However, only 150,000 poultry have been culled so far in the state as health workers have often turned up late for duty.
Health workers even stopped culling in several places and demanded higher wages, villagers said.
Officials said culling was slow, while some disease experts said the government had reacted too late.
“The delay in diagnosing the problem by the government has cost them dearly. We are hugely worried,” said C.M. Gulhati, the India editor of the Monthly Index of Medical Speciality, a British medical publication.
West Bengal is ruled by the world’s longest-serving democratically elected communist government. Its leaders have struggled against regular strikes and protests.
Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu, Simon Denyer in Patna; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jerry Norton