H5N1( American Vaccine Conspiracy, and Other Information and Misinformation On Nepal’s Bird Flu Outbreak

Sunday, August 11, 2013 edition of The Himalayan Times.

Sunday, August 11, 2013 edition of The Himalayan Times.

UPDATED 7PM (August 13, 2013):

The Himalayan Times national daily has still not responded to today’s original post in which it’s alleged source, Tulsiram Dhukkhwa, told me the newspaper falsely claimed  American vaccines had caused the bird flu outbreak in the valley and attributed the claim to him without his knowledge. Upon being asked to clarify, the newspaper has chosen not to do so. It appears a snowball effect of the original vaccine report from Sunday (photographed above) might have led to the Government banning all anti-bird flu vaccines in Nepal for now (details below).

But Dr. Sameer M. Dixit, PhD, Country Director of Public Health Research & Disease Surveillance at Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, emailed the following response:

“There are chiefly three types of vaccines- attenuated live, killed and subunit  The first two may, in extreme cases, cause disease (eg, if attenuated virus is not really attenuated and has virulence genes still active; or if killed bacteria/virus formulation somehow failed to kill all). Based on this information, I would be able to look into this better. Ideally, we can always contact the vaccine manufacturer to legally provide us with details of virus used in the current vaccine. If there is any truth to all this, CDC/WHO should test the birds for the strains.”

ORIGINAL POST (11AM, August 13, 2013): 

A startling headline caught my eye a couple of days ago: the lead on The Himalayan Times daily’s Capital section (page 3) was a claim that the ongoing bird flu outbreak in Kathmandu valley was caused by an American vaccine. It’s a claim that would be of the most serious consequences. The news item, however, doesn’t mention  what vaccine, who used it and how, or where it came from.

So  I spoke to the source of the information this morning. It is a conversation that has also now moved into a whole new policy level with the Nepal government banning anti bird-flu vaccines. First, let’s get the American trial out of the way.

The Context:

Headline: ‘US vaccine may be behind bird flu’
Reporter: Ishworkaji Khaiju
Newspaper: The Himalayan Times

The Lead: 
“A leading poultry farmer today said unauthorized use of vaccines meant to fight bid flu, especially a USA-made vaccine, may have caused bird flu outbreak in Bhaktapur.”

The Source:
Tulsiram Dhukkhwa, Chairman of the Poultry Farmers’ Association (Bhaktapur)

Quotes Attributed to Source:

  1. “Unauthorised vaccines are responsible for bird flu outbreak in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.”
  2. “If Nepal has been used to test vaccines developed against bird flu in the USA, it is a misfortune.”

Information Attributed to Source:
“Dhukkhwa claimed that samples of dead birds have already reached America.”

The Source’s Response:

Here is what Mr. Tulsiram Dhukkhwa told me over the phone this morning when I asked for a clarification on his statements as published in the Himalayan Times:

On Ongoing Problems:
“We have been telling the Government that if they are serious about public health, they need to cull the chicken properly. The disposal has to be done properly.”

On telling The Himalayan Times an American vaccine might have caused the H5N1 outbreak:
“I assume the reporter who wrote the news probably knows the details.”

On telling the press chicken dead from the outbreak have already been taken to America for tests: 

“That is not true, we have never said something like that.”

The Fact?

If reporter Ishworkaji Khaiju has his source on the record (literally, with a sound byte in his recorder), then this would settle the issue and raise interesting questions as to why the source is retracting his rather bold claims now. Otherwise, it instead raises very serious  questions about the reporter and the media house for running a headline and a news piece accusing the United Sates of conducting biological experiments here in Nepal’s capital, at a time when the country is gripped in bird flu anxiety. In Khaiju’s report today, the U.S Embassy says “no US vaccine for avian influenza  is being ‘officially imported’ into Nepal” (details below).

Fact of the matter is, maybe the bird flu was never properly dealt with since it first appeared in Nepal in 2009. And the Nepali government took far too long to respond even after the outbreak significantly heightened last December and spread across the country this Spring. And even two weeks after the Government took a major step by banning poultry sales in the valley, which they lifted after poultry industrialists pressured them to, no one has presented a clear approach to how this problem will be dealt with while the industry is genuinely making millions in losses every day.

New Report, New Sources:

Bird Flu and its link to illegal vaccine use gets front page coverage in The Himalayan Times today.

Bird Flu and its link to illegal vaccine use gets front page coverage in The Himalayan Times today.

Reporter Ishworkaji Khaiju has a grim follow-up front page story in the Himalayan Times today, with more sources to back the claim that illegal use of vaccines may have caused the outbreak, or made it worse. This report is worth reading. You can read it in full here. The theories expert share with him for this report are all plausible based on the history of importing and using other illegal products, namely . chemical fertilizers (even expired ones), pesticides, and unapproved seed varieties (the porous border Nepal shares with India makes it difficult for the government to monitor what comes in).

Mr. Tulsiram Dhukkhwa, who to my knowledge is the first alleged source to claim  bird flu vaccines being responsible for the outbreak, is once again quoted in today’s news. On the phone this morning, he said he has not spoken to anyone from the Himlayan Times on this matter.

Government Bans Anti-Bird Flu Vaccines:

Exhibiting its reactionary tendencies, the Government has now gone ahead and banned anti-bird flu vaccines as reported in the Himalayan Times. Read that here.  What do other countries do about H5N1 bird flu vaccines? An extremely resourceful blog by Michael Coston offers a list of how the vaccine is being developed and used around the world. You can check that page here. 

Should Dead Birds Fly?

2011 H5N1 Evolution Conceptual Design by World Health Organization.

2011 H5N1 Evolution Conceptual Design by World Health Organization.

The chart above is the evolution of H5N1 between 1996 and 2011. You can see the original here. As reported in the Himalayan Times, the current strain in Nepal is H5N1

Conspiracy theories aside, does it make sense for scientists at the World Health Organization, or the American Center for Disease Control, to study our H5N1 outbreak? And wouldn’t that be important for Nepal? Maybe we have the capacity to deal with it domestically, although this on-going outbreak clearly indicates otherwise. I haven’t had the time to check if the WHO or CDC has obtained any samples of our sick or culled fowls but that would be worth looking into for sure.

From the American Food and Drug Administration FAQ:

Has anyone in the United States been diagnosed with avian influenza?

No cases of avian influenza occurring in people have been reported in the United States or North America, but there have been cases in other parts of the world such as Asia Africa, and the Middle East. According to statistics provided by the World Health Organization, from 2003 through February 2013, there have been 620 laboratory-confirmed cases in humans, of whom, 367 died. Each additional case provides the virus an opportunity to improve its ability for human-to-human transmission and develop into a pandemic strain.

Is H5N1 avian influenza more serious than seasonal influenza?

Yes. H5N1 avian influenza has some of the standard seasonal influenza symptoms such as high fever, headache, and muscle aches, but people quickly become seriously ill and pneumonia, difficulty breathing, and multi-organ failure have been common among people who have become infected with H5N1 influenza.

Read the full FAQ here.

What Should Nepali Consumers Do?

Earlier this year I had spoken to  Dr. Sameer M. Dixit, PhD, Country Director of Public Health Research & Disease Surveillance at Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal about what consumers can do about the ongoing H5N1 outbreak. His advise are as valid now as it was then, and will probably remain valid for some time to come. You can read that here. 

His additional advise now? “Please do not touch poultry products with bare hands as much as possible, meaning, stay away” from it.

Additional Resources: