With farmers opposed to culling, will Kerala be able to contain the bird flu outbreak?

It's a heartbreaking situation for farmers in the southern districts of Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam in Kerala — hundreds of ducks have dropped dead and at least five lakh of them have to be killed.

These districts are under the grip of the bird-flu virus H5N1, that had earlier led to epidemic outbreaks in Maharashtra and West Bengal, and if immediate steps are not taken it might spread to humans as well.

 With farmers opposed to culling, will Kerala be able to contain the bird flu outbreak?

Representational image. AFP

State authorities have confirmed the presence of the virus in the birds in the three districts and cases of bird-deaths were also reported in Ernakulam and Kollam. Reportedly, the virus is contagious and can cause deaths in humans as well.

The only way to stop the spread of the disease is to kill all the ducks and chicken within a certain distance. Alappuzha, which is also the centre of duck farming in the state, is the epicentre of the outbreak. About five lakh ducks have to be culled in this district alone. It’s a hugely emotional and costly decision for the farmers because what they lose in this process is their livelihood.

The state government has promised compensation, but it will never be sufficient. Till the threat of the disease blows over, they will be out of work and raising another flock of ducks will take time. Each farmer in the area has thousands of ducks.

Despite the decision to cull all the ducks and chicken within a kilometre of the places where the disease has been reported, the risk of its spread and its transmission to humans appears real because of poor preventive steps. TV footage shows farmers handling the dead ducks barehand while the preventive guidelines recommend full body suits. Apparently, they had been given gloves, but most of them are not using it. They are both culling and burning the ducks without any protection.

Outbreaks caused by H5N1 have been reported in different parts of the world and the spread to humans has been recorded in less than 1000 cases. In India, major outbreaks were reported in Nandurbar district in Maharashtra in 2006 and in 13 districts of West Bengal in 2008. The spread was not contained on time and hence nearly half the state was affected.

One of the obstacles to containing the spread of the disease is the opposition to culling from the farmers. In Maharashtra, more 2.5 lakh birds were killed to avoid the spread while in West Bengal, people opposed the culling because it would affect their livelihood. In both the places, people resisted the finding that the disease was caused by H5N1 and said it was nothing but a routine seasonal disease.

In Kerala too, the farmers have resisted culling because it’s their livelihood. They alleged that the reports of bird-deaths were exaggerated. When they finally reconciled to the suggestion, they wanted higher compensation because what the government originally proposed was too low. Now they will get Rs 100 for ducks which were less than two months old, and Rs 200 for others.

A lot of people, mostly duck farmers, have been exposed to the virus by now and it’s the government’s responsibility that they take the preventive medication.

Meanwhile, the economic impact of the outbreak has been instant. The prices of chicken has plummeted which will affect the profitability of poultry farms. Some reports suggested that the outbreak might also affect tourism because Alappuzha is a major destination for tourists.

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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2014 16:01:42 IST