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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 12:00 GMT
Indian town reels as bird flu hits

By Monica Chadha
BBC News, Navapur

Chickens in Navapur farm
Nearly 900,000 chickens have to be slaughtered
Navapur is a tiny, underdeveloped town in the Indian state of Maharashtra that has got little attention for its many problems.

But now it is firmly on the map after the authorities confirmed on Saturday that it had recorded the first case of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in India.

Since then, government and health officials have been swarming the place, trying to control the spread of the deadly disease.

For years, the people of Navapur had to contend with bad roads, poor electricity and social issues such as deaths of children due to malnutrition.

Now they have to deal with bird flu - and many of them do not even know what it is, let alone how it is spread.

All areas within 3km (nearly 2 miles) of Navapur have been quarantined and 60 medical teams have been deployed in the area with a clear brief of slaughtering all the chickens - nearly 900,000 in number.

Farms empty

Men dressed in blue protective gear, wearing gloves, masks and dark glasses, move from one poultry farm to another, killing the birds as well as taking blood samples from some for further tests.

None of my chickens have died due to the disease and neither I nor my labourers suffer from any of the symptoms
Hashim Kursiwala
Poultry farmer
The poultry farms wear a deserted look as the chickens are killed and then buried in deep pits in the land nearby. The huge chicken sheds now only have bird feathers and waste to show for their recent inhabitants.

Shut and empty, they paint a woeful picture in the town that relies primarily on chicken-rearing for its livelihood.

Poultry farmers are still coming to terms with their loss.

Hashim Kursiwala had a flourishing poultry business until Saturday. Now, he is left with empty chicken sheds.

He believes that nothing is wrong with his chickens and to prove his point, moves around his last batch of live stock without a mask and handles them with naked hands.

Health officials in Navapur
Health officials have descended on the town
However, he had 10,000 birds slaughtered on his farm because "the authorities said so.

"There is no bird flu here. None of my chickens have died due to the disease and neither I nor my labourers suffer from any of the symptoms.

"Yet I must shut my business and now look at another means of livelihood," he laments.

He also said that although some farms may have reported cases of bird flu, not all have been affected - and the government should get the blood samples of chickens tested to ascertain which ones have.

Big loss

Other farmers are outraged at the media for giving a "bad picture of poultry business in Navapur" and blame them for their present situation.

The government has announced a compensation of about a dollar for each killed chicken but the farmers say that would not cover even 50% of their costs.

Navapur residents move around with a sense of apprehension and uncertainty: uncertain about what is happening or could happen to them - and most of all, unsure how to deal with the new situation.

Shops at the local market are open, with people buying groceries and going about their work as they would on any other day.

But further down the road, some people prefer to move around with handkerchiefs covering their nose and ears as a makeshift mask for protection against the disease.

Health scare

Parts of town - especially those near the chicken farms - are deserted, as most people have left their homes and moved to other areas as a safety precaution.

Navapur residents
Local residents are scared of contracting bird flu
College student Yogesh Shampi keeps his face covered at all times.

He is nervous about staying back but has no choice, as he has examinations due in a few days.

"My parents have been calling me, asking me to come home. I am afraid too and would like to leave Navapur as soon as possible, but the college won't let me.

"I must appear for the exam, even though I can't study for it because the mind is always thinking, what if I stayed on and got the bird flu?"

One of his classmates, Balwant Dawhade, is suffering from a cold and fever and fears the worst even though he has not been near a poultry farm and the doctors have assured him it is not bird flu.

"I am a little relieved after the doctors told me I am not suffering from bird flu but if I continue to stay here, then who knows? If I could, I would have left immediately."

The authorities already face the difficult task of handling the spread of bird flu detected for the first time in the country. They have to ensure that they have ample vaccines at hand and other measures in place to deal with any eventuality.

But dealing with the sceptics and explaining the gravity of the situation without creating panic may prove more difficult.

Indian health minister urges public to stay calm


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