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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 February 2008, 10:26 GMT
India's risky bird flu offensive
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Hatpur, West Bengal

Hundreds of curious people watch the culling of poultry at Hatpur village in the Indian state of West Bengal with no protective clothing - not even a towel around their noses.

Poultry birds were being culled in West Bengal
Culling teams have spread out in Bengal's affected districts

The only people in the village with protective gear for bird flu are the five members of the culling team - and this correspondent.

Local official Aloka Mondal says she is busy trying to meet government targets for culling birds and does not have the time to follow the safety protocol.

Standard practice for culling dictates that villages have to be vacated, people without protective gear should be removed from the area and the culled birds should be disposed off in sanitised zones.

"I have a target to achieve. We have to cull 45,000 to 50,000 birds in our area and we have been asked to do it within two days," says Ms Mondal.

"We don't have enough people in government to do it, so we have drafted some locals for a daily fee."

Chanditola, Hatpur and Jonai are latest in the list of bird-flu affected areas in West Bengal.

They are located in Hooghly district, just two hours from the state's capital, Calcutta (Kolkata), and have some of the state's largest commercial and backyard poultries.

Hooghly is among the 13 of West Bengal's 19 districts that have been hit by bird flu in what is, according to officials, a "massive outbreak".

No cases of human infection have been reported.

Local officials such as Ms Mondal have been told that they will be taken to task if they cannot achieve the culling targets.

Culling workers in West Bengal village
Only the culling teams are using protection

Nearly 2.4 million birds have been culled in West Bengal in the past fortnight.

But the target has now been hiked to 2.8 million after samples from some areas like Chanditola, Hatpur and Jonai tested positive.

"We are told if culling is not completed, bird flu may spread in my district and cause greater losses to poultry farmers. Also there could be human infection. So we cannot concentrate on anything other than culling," says Ms Mondal.

However, if villagers are allowed to gather around and watch the culling without protection, the threat of human infection is greater.

Two policemen accompanying the culling team working in Kajal Bagh's farm at Hatpur occasionally chase away the villagers but they come back in greater numbers, ever more curious.

Safety lapse

And without any protective clothing, the villagers get to within a metre or two of the jute sacks in which the culled birds are collected for dumping in a nearby marsh.

"Safety has been a casualty in the entire culling operation all across West Bengal since mid-January," says animal disease expert Debojit Brahma.

"The government is only worried about how many birds have been killed."

In an unusual safety lapse, the West Bengal government allowed thousands of members of culling teams to go home to their families without putting them through the mandatory quarantine.

Now many of them have been recalled to their base camps where they will be isolated and put through tests for a few days.

"We have now instructed district magistrates not to allow any culling team member to go home during the culling period and when they are on mandatory quarantine," says West Bengal Health Minister Surya Kanta Mishra.

Officials at a bird flu affected village in West Bengal
Bird flu has hit 13 of Bengal's 19 districts

But in Hatpur and Chanditola, where 15 culling teams have been deployed after samples from the area tested positive this week, the scene is different.

"Doctors have asked us to stay away from families during the culling. But where will we stay?" asks Somnath Santra, a member of the culling team at Hatpur.

"No camp has been set up for us, so we have to go home to eat and sleep at night."

The H5N1 strain of bird flu is regarded as highly pathogenic and can also cause disease and death among humans who have been in contact with affected animals.

There are fears the virus could trigger a global pandemic if it evolves to pass easily between humans.

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