Bird Flu: Nine Months Later, H5N1 Continues to Plague Nepal

All Photos: Kashish Das Shrestha.

All Photos: Kashish Das Shrestha.

Late last December, “when a rapid response team of experts, armed with chemicals and equipment, arrived at Surendra Man Basnet’s poultry farm in Bafal on Tuesday, they were shocked to discover the absence of any chicken.” The following day, Kathmandu Post published a news headlined “Bird Flu Infected Chicken Disappear.” While the team did destroy 19,000 eggs found in the poultry farm’s freezer, the H5N1 virus was nowhere close to being contained.

By February 11 this year the fifth outbreak had been detected in Kathmandu district when a total of 5000 chicken from two different poultry farms were culled by the Directorate of Animal Health (DoAH) in a period of two days.

In a startling incident in April, as the outbreak spread across Nepal, a sack of dead chicken were found in a local river in Jhapa. Republica national daily had reported of the incident: “the district veterinary office recovered a sack stuffed with dead chicken dumped in the Aduwa Khola. A sample of the chicken sent for testing turned out to be bird-flu positive. It was clear that an unknown poultry farmer had secretly dumped the dead chicken instead of informing the authorities. Jagadish Panday, chief of the district veterinary office, expressed anxiety over such unscrupulous practices by poultry owners.”

By the end of April, bird flu cases were swallowing poultry farms across the country. In the mean time, China had its own outbreak too. But on May 22, Reuters reported that China’s new bird flu virus had been controlled. The H7N9 virus “infected at least 130 people in China since March, with 36 deaths, but no cases have been detected since early May.”

Here in Nepal, however, the H5N1 outbreak continues to spread. On the day China reported it had controlled its outbreak, Nepal’s Republica national daily reported “three bird flu outbreaks in the last seven days” in Kathmandu. The report went on to say:

“In the last nine months alone, avian influenza (H5N1-virus) has been detected in 52 poultry farms across the country, said DoAH officials. They said that the country has witnessed 75 bird flu outbreaks since 2009 and 170,000 chickens have been culled so far. According to DoAH, these outbreaks had been detected in Jhapa, Taplejung, Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, Dhading, Nuwakot, Chitwan, Rupandehi, Kaski, Nawalparasi, Kailali and Kathmandu.”

Frozen chicken sold by Nina & Hager is largely imported from Thailand.

Frozen chicken sold by Nina & Hager is largely imported from Thailand.

Kathmandu also now has a large market for chicken that is imported from other countries, such as Thailand. “Most of our chicken is actually from Thailand,” Nina Tiwari, daughter of the founders of Nina & Hager, one of the city’s larger meat suppliers, explained. “My parents are working with the meat every day, and we haven’t experienced any health issues.”

Local poultry farms in Nepal, however, continue to be plagued by the outbreak.  Why is the flu spreading so swiftly in Nepal, and how worried should consumers be? I asked this and other questions to Dr. Sameer M. Dixit, PhD, Country Director of Public Health Research & Disease Surveillance at Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal. Here, excerpts of what he told me:

The Continuing Outbreak:

“No matter how much Department of Livestock Services or Epidemiology and Disease Control Division  tries, there will always be hidden cases, and farmers that will hide their poultry because it could cost them hundreds of thousands of rupees in losses! And you just need a couple of birds to spread the disease to others.

Government bodies and the Livestock Department are trying their best, but with limitations on human resource and technical expertise, there are high chances of missing out cases. If a farmer hides a dead bird at the time of inspection, recently infected birds are difficult to identify unless on site tests are carried out. And that is difficult.”

Risk to humans and consumers:

“Those dealing with live bird need to worry. This virus is airborne so even breathing in close proximity to the bird raises chances of infection. As for dealing with the meat itself, if one washes their hands properly, with soap, after touching it then chances of infection are greatly reduced. Those that want to cook raw meat need to take precaution. However, in a restaurant setting, consumers have no risk eating cooked meat. 

The virus can also survive inside and outside eggs. Boiled egg, or better still, items that lead to breaking open the shell will eliminate virus threat. However, you should wash hands and wipe the surface that the raw egg was in contact with.”

A poultry farm in Chitwan, a region that has experienced several bird flu outbreaks since December 2012.

A poultry farm in Chitwan, a region that has experienced several bird flu outbreaks since December 2012.

 Relation to Chinese H7N9 strain:

“To my knowledge, there is no relation to the outbreak in China. Genetic studies, if they have been conducted, have not yet been reported by the Nepali government.”

 Preventive Measure:

“Avian flu demands the same preventive measures as for any flu outbreak; distance and minimal contact with source or suspected source, and wearing a mask and washing hands if needed to deal with it at all. If a sick bird is observed, it is advised to maintain a distance and make no contact, even to segregate other birds as those may also have already been infected. It is imperative to call a veterinarian immediately.”

And finally, A brief history of bird flu in Nepal, as reported by Kantipur media last December:

“Nepal witnessed its first avian flu outbreak in 2008 in Jhapa. Since then, major outbreaks have been reported in Pokhara, Nawalparasi and Banke. Similar outbreaks were reported in a Dhading poultry farm on December 21 [2012] and a farm in Bode, Bhaktapur on October 15 [2012]. Likewise, in March, cases of bird flu were reported on Lalitpur farms. The first case of the flu inside the Kathmandu Valley was reported in November 2011 in the Manohara river.”

In Numbers:

  • 52 poultry farms across Nepal in last nine months.
  • 75 bird flu outbreaks since 2009
  • 170,000 chickens culled since 2009.