‘Symptoms can be similar to COVID-19’: Bird flu triggers panic in Kashmir

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On 6 February, the first case of the bird flu was detected in the Valley. The Jammu and Kashmir administration announced that seven crows had died of the virus. Two weeks later, on 27 February, the first case of the virus in poultry was reported from north Kashmir.

Scores of crows were found dead besides carcasses of few foxes in Gundmacher area of north Kashmir’s Lolab on Monday and three pigeons were found dead in Bemina neighbourhood of Srinagar this week. 

The Avian Influenza is a highly contagious viral disease — with mild as well as fatal strains — among birds and poultry birds such as chickens are susceptible to it. The virus has many strains, while some of them are mild others can be fatal. 

With a huge population of poultry being reared commercially in farms and in backyards of homes, mostly in the rural areas, the rise in cases of the Avian Influenza or commonly known as bird flu has caused concern.

“Around 75 percent mortality is seen in poultry. Here, the virus has mostly been seen in peridomestic birds,” said Salim Khan, Head of Department, Social and Preventive Medicine at the Government Medical College (GMC), Srinagar.

After the rise in bird deaths, avian influenza was confirmed in J-K as well as thirteen states including Kerala, Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi. “As of now we haven’t received any case where we had transmission from birds to humans,” said Khan. 

The birds usually get two types of influenza viruses including low pathogenicity virus and high pathogenicity virus, said Khan. Low pathogenicity avian influenza virus typically produces respiratory signs such as sneezing, coughing, ocular and nasal discharge, and swollen infraorbital sinuses in poultry while as high pathogenicity avian influenza virus causes severe, systemic disease with high mortality in the birds. “If a human catches this virus, he gets respiratory infections such as cough, joint pain, body ache, fever. The symptoms can be similar to COVID-19,” said Khan. 

The virus from infected birds can only spillover to humans only when they are in direct contact with birds, said Khan. “Poultry farm owners and people involved with slaughtering are at a higher risk,” he added. 

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, a person coming in close contact with infected alive or dead birds can contract the virus but it does not usually spread from person to person. Moreover, there is no evidence as per WHO that the disease can be spread among people through properly cooked poultry food as the virus is sensitive to heat, and dies at high cooking temperatures.

Khan suggested that people must take care of their hygiene, wear a mask and remain suspicious while dealing with birds. “If the farm owners see sudden bird death happening, they need to inform the administration immediately,” Khan said. 

If a person in direct contact with birds gets sudden fever or respiratory problems similar to COVID-19, he should get treated, said Khan. “For people dealing with poultry, the biggest sign will be the deaths among poultry. It will happen suddenly only if the infection is there,” he said, adding that the treatment of the disease depends on the severity. 

Mushtaq Ahmad Shah, Joint Director of poultry Kashmir told The Kashmir Walla that if the birds have died somewhere, that place needs to be sealed. “Dead birds should not be thrown in the open but buried properly in a 4 ft. deep pit.”

Poultry farm owners or members of the public rearing poultry at home should take precautions like quickly wash their hands and wear proper protection kits after entering the breeding areas, said Shah. He advised people to eat poultry eggs or meat after boiling them and cooking them thoroughly.

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