New Delhi, Jan. 29 (NNN): Alarmed by the rapid spread of the deadly bird flu in across Asia, India on Thursday banned all imports of poultry and processed poultry products, Union Health Minister Sushma Swaraj told newsmen here.
The minister said the people crossing the border into India from Pakistan and Myanmar -- two affected countries -- are being screened.
Swaraj said India has also offered to hold a meeting of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to deal with the crisis.
Union Agriculture Minister Rajnath Singh was present at the media briefing.
WHO WARNING: Earlier on Wednesday even as India has issued an alert against deadly bird flu to guard against an outbreak sweeping 10 other Asian countries which has killed ten people and millions of chickens, New Delhi-based WHO expert warned of an as yet unsuspected carrier of the deadly virus - migratory birds, who visit the country year after year.
According to authorities in New Delhi no cases of avian influenza or bird flu had been reported yet in the country of more than one billion people but that it has told all state governments to be on guard against the virulent illness.
"We've alerted the Cenral animal husbandry ministry and state governments especially those bordering Pakistan and Myanmar to keep a lookout for any cases," Union Health Ministry Secretary JVR Prasada Rao told AFP news agency on Wednesday.
Rao said the government had also set up a monitoring group including officials from the health ministry, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, the WHO and the department of animal husbandry.
With the virus reaching as close as Pakistanís port city of Karachi on Monday, India has issued a nationwide alert, even though experts say that chances of an outbreak in the country are remote. "All state governments have been asked to alert poultry farm owners to report any large scale death of fowls," says MVVS Murty, Health ministryís Director of Public Relations.
"Industry associations, who are in regular touch with farm owners, have also been roped in. We have also set up a committee of experts to monitor surveillance efforts. But the ground work rests in the hands of state governments."
The Indian move came after officials reported earlier this week that bird flu had killed at least 3.5 million chickens in neighbouring Pakistan but the strain was less dangerous for humans than those detected in other parts of Asia.
Officials in the northern Punjab bordering Pakistan have been asked to keep a close watch on all poultry farms in the state, DS Bains, head of Punjab's animal husbandry department, said.
Another Punjab official said the animal husbandry department had done a census of birds in the state in December and found no cases of bird flu.
Media reports said news of the bird flu had led to a slight drop in sales of chickens in major cities of Punjab.
The United Nations agencies have called for an all-out global effort to combat bird flu and warned the virus could kill millions if it combines with another human influenza virus which is moving towards the region.
Pakistan's state-run Agriculture Research Commission has said the H7 and H9 strains afflicting chickens in Pakistan are less fatal variations of the H5N1 strain that has killed at least eight people and millions of fowl in Thailand and Vietnam.
The two strains cannot be transmitted to humans, the commission said.
Outbreaks of the lethal strain have been confirmed in Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, with weaker varieties detected in Pakistan and Taiwan.
MIGRATORY BIRDS: Meanwhile, as per a Delhi-based WHO expert has warned that migratory birds To the country could be the potential carrier of the deadly menace.
According to HBK Pandey of the WHOís South East Asia Regional Office (SEARO)here, if such reports -- though unconfirmed -- come true, the entire world stands at risk, irrespective of the current anti-bird flu measures generally limited to chickens.
India canít be an exception as it is a popular destination of a variety of migratory birds. The flu has so far been detected in nine countries in the region, including Pakistan, and has claimed at least 10 lives in Vietnam and Thailand, where more than 10 million chickens have been killed as a preventive measure.
"There have been reports, though unconfirmed, that the disease is also transferred through migratory wild birds," Pandey said, adding: "Now, no country, including India, is free from the threat."
At a meeting on Tuesday, SEARO also decided to issue a general guideline to India and other member states to watch out against the virus.
India does not stand at risk as far as the spread of the virus through chickens is concerned.
"Unlike most other South East Asian countries, India does not import chicken or eggs," says Dr KK Aggarwal, president of the Indian Medical Associationís New Delhi chapter. "Hence the virus wonít find it easy to enter the country. Also, the virus is not yet known to spread directly between human beings. So the threat of infection from foreign visitors, as happened in the case of SARS, is also negligible."
If the disease comes in through chickens, as happens normally, then poultry farm workers can easily get infected. "These workers are exposed to chicken excreta, and form a high-risk group," says Dr Aggarwal. "Eating chicken or eggs without boiling them is also potentially infectious. Non-vegetarians should thus take care, and eat only properly cooked eggs and meat."
*Here is a look at bird flu spreading through Asia:
Following are the details of the bird flue menace Ė how it is spread, where it is spreading, how many are affected, how it is passed and its symptoms etceteras.
* WHAT IS IT: A form of influenza believed to strike all birds, though domestic poultry are believed especially prone to it. It also has jumped to humans, though no human-to-human transmission has been reported.
* WHERE IT IS: Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Laos. Pakistan says it had detected bird flu, though the World Health Organization has not yet confirmed an outbreak. Thailand and Vietnam have reported human cases.
* HOW MANY PEOPLE AFFECTED: Possibly 13 people - eight confirmed cases and five suspected cases - have died. Vietnam has confirmed seven human cases, six of whom have died. Thailand has confirmed three cases, including two deaths. Thailand says five other suspected patients have also died.
* HOW IT'S PASSED: Infected birds spread the virus through saliva, faeces, and nasal secretions. So far, only humans with direct contact with sick birds have caught the disease. But scientists are worried that bird flu could link with regular human influenza, mutate, and become a deadly new virus and trigger a pandemic
* SYMPTOMS IN BIRDS: Loss of appetite, ruffled feathers, fever, weakness, diarrhoea, excessive thirst, swelling. If the strain is virulent, mortality rate can range between 50 percent to 100 percent.
* SYMPTOMS IN HUMANS: Fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, eye infections, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, viral pneumonia.
* OTHER HUMAN OUTBREAKS: Bird flu was first reported in humans in Hong Kong in 1997. Since then, it's popped up mostly in Asia, although the Netherlands reported an outbreak, including human cases, in 2003.
* TREATMENT FOR HUMANS: World Health Organization says this year's strain is resistant to cheaper anti-viral drugs, amantadine and rimantadine. Scientists are exploring more expensive treatment. WHO also recommends quarantining sick people.
* FOOD SAFETY: There's no evidence that the virus is being passed through eating chicken products, health experts say. Heat kills viruses, and WHO says chicken products should be cooked thoroughly at temperatures of at least 70 degrees Celsius. WHO also says people should wash their hands after handling poultry and ensure that poultry carcasses do not contaminate other objects.