Indian authorities are discovering masses of dead birds as avian influenza sweeps across the country, alarming a public already rattled by coronavirus.
Since late December, thousands of geese, ducks, crows and other birds have been found dead in nine states, from Kerala on India’s southern tip to the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in the north. There are no reported human infections.
Officials working to quash the new epidemic have detected two different strains of bird flu: H5N1 and H5N8. They believe the virus was carried into India by birds migrating from central Asia before spreading to poultry, prompting officials to cull hundreds of thousands of birds in states such as Haryana and Kerala.
In Europe, France is culling 600,000 poultry birds to contain its own outbreak of H5N8, with the UK and Belgium also recently uncovering cases. Officials in Japan and South Korea too have reported cases of bird flu.
“We never know when it’ll become a pandemic. That’s why you’ve got to be extremely watchful,” said Bivash Pandav of the Wildlife Institute of India, a government-affiliated research institution. “We’re much better prepared than 10 years back, and the credit goes to Covid.”
Local and central government authorities in India have increased testing of dead birds for the presence of bird flu, although scientists said the true extent of the outbreak remained unclear.
Some ecologists said insufficient surveillance of birds in the wild, including live birds, made such outbreaks harder to prevent. Abi Vanak, who studies zoonotic diseases at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said the coronavirus pandemic underscored the urgency of such work.
“Human health is closely interconnected with animal health and environmental health. And therefore human health should not be viewed in isolation,” he said. “If the pandemic teaches us one thing, it should teach us this.”
India has recorded more than 10m coronavirus cases, the second-highest in the world, and more than 150,000 deaths.
Asad Rahmani, a former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, a conservation research organisation, said the destruction of habitats such as wetlands exacerbated outbreaks by forcing more birds to concentrate in fewer places.
For example, thousands of carcasses have been found around the Pong Dam lake in the Himalayan foothills, a popular birdwatching spot, including the famous migratory bar-headed goose.
India experienced multiple severe avian flu outbreaks in 2006 and 2008, which led to the culling of millions of birds.
The recent scare has hammered India’s fast-growing poultry industry. Prices have tumbled as anxious consumers avoid chicken meat and eggs, although officials have sought to assure the public that cooked poultry is safe.
Broiler chicken prices have fallen almost a third in the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, for example, according to the Indian Express newspaper.
Less than a year ago, producers had to swallow a similar price crash after unfounded rumours that people could catch Covid-19 from chickens, which prompted consumers to shun poultry.
But Farah Ishtiaq, an ecologist at the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society, said the lack of regulation around India’s poultry industry, such as over its hygiene or transportation practices, posed a perennial risk.
“It is very easy for infections to transmit between poultry farms,” she said. “We need strict monitoring and regulations on how to maintain hygiene and poultry farms near densely populated areas.”