When the bird flu

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 24, 2008 10:10 hrs

Frankly, my dear

Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine, an independent publication devoted to essays, literature and criticism on social concerns and issues neglected by mainstream media (www.littlemag.com). Sen has earlier worked as a senior editor with The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express, among other assignments. She can be contacted at sen@littlemag.com


The bird flu strikes in unexpected ways. It has now taken a swipe at our Olympic aspirations. The national badminton camp scheduled to start on February 7 was cancelled at the last minute, due to a lack of shuttlecocks. Because those are made of goose feather. And geese, like chickens, have been affected by the bird flu and are out of bounds.

Such foul news crushed aspirants who had hoped to hone their skills for the big badminton championships coming up, including the Olympic Games this summer.

Too bad, said the Sports Ministry, never mind if we don't add another feather to our cap, we can't allow shuttlecocks from bird-flu-hit China. As with most consumer goods, China appears to be dominating the shuttlecock market. Sadly, even our domestic shuttlecocks from our own birds have disappeared after the bird flu scare. And given the real danger of avian flu, there isn't much point in raising a racquet.

Before this sporting blow, it was a culinary disaster for meat-eaters. Mutton is bad for the health - certainly after a certain age - and poultry was fast disappearing from the menu, at least in eastern India. As the bird flu took wing, you could feel the change in attitude, especially in roadside eateries.

The raffish street wit of Kolkata updated you on the health hazard. It started with eateries brandishing cheekiness with chicken curries, cutlets, omelettes and devilled eggs. “Old stock!” they grinned, “all pre-bird flu stuff. Very stale, very safe. Trust me, there isn't a single fresh chicken or egg here! Don't worry - come and eat!” People did.

Days passed, the scare increased, the tune changed. “Blood flu, blood flu!” roadside vendors called out loudly, getting their words mixed up in their rush to lure passersby, tossing chicken kathi rolls invitingly on the tawa over a blazing flame. “Check out this heat - that wretched virus has no chance! Here, try one.” They reeled out temperatures that kill the virus, egging on the nervous, sneering at the gutless, celebrating the brave who stepped up to eat.

But as the West Bengal government stepped in, determined to exterminate the infection, even the bravest chickened out. Poultry disappeared from markets and dining tables as good Bengalis clucked in disgust and turned more enthusiastically to their first love, fish.

Meanwhile, millions of chicken were being killed across the state, at the first sign of the flu in the neighbourhood. Headless chickens once again dominated news-space, months after Ronen Sen's idiomatic English almost got his own head chopped off. (Why, he had snapped at a reporter, were journalists and politicians running around like headless chickens agitated about the Indo-US nuclear deal? And spent the next weeks and months offering craven apologies in all directions.)

As millions of birds were culled in Bengal, local cynics gave a bird's eye view. What a terrible time for Bengali birds, they moaned, can't be idle, can't take a siesta, can't be yourself! The moment one sits down to relax, they rush in and kill the whole flock!

Humour helps, but it doesn't protect us from viruses. For that we need information, concerted effort, political will, health infrastructure, adequate funds and cross-border cooperation. Unfortunately, we are somewhat lacking in almost all of the above. Now, Bangladesh's refusal to reveal which strain their bird flu virus is strikes yet another blow to India's efforts to fight its worst attack of the disease.

In order to pinpoint the source of infection in West Bengal - strongly suspecting that it was infected poultry smuggled in from Bangladesh - the government of India had asked its neighbour for genetic details of the strain of bird flu that has been wreaking havoc in Bangladesh since last year. But Bangladesh declared that the sequencing is not done yet, and they don't have any details to offer.

Experts doubt this stand, because it is impossible to fight the virus without knowing what to fight, and Bangladesh has been struggling with the avian influenza for a year. Besides, their genetic sequencing was reportedly completed in the UK last year. Refusing to share information on a potential pandemic that could kill millions across the globe defies common sense, ethics and political wisdom.

For the flu which begins with birds passes on to humans, killing people with a vengeance. In Indonesia alone, of the 126 people sick with this flu, 103 have died. And the toll goes up every day or two. More worryingly, health authorities in Indonesia now seem to be uncertain about the cause of its spread. After studies conducted around victims and their surroundings, they could not decide on the risk factors for human infection. Which means that the virus could be spreading far more dangerously than thought, making it very difficult to snap the chain of infection from birds to humans.

And once it becomes a human flu, the virus may mutate, become airborne and even drug resistant. It can travel the world freely, posing enormous dangers to unsuspecting people in distant lands - like commuters, air-passengers, travellers by train or bus or car - anyone at all, since these days we travel a lot and stay ensconced in air-conditioned comfort even more, breathing each other's breath in the canned, recycled air.

As the world gets smaller and we get cosy in the global village, such silent, natural biological bombs could devastate us all. Infections like the avian flu in humans could pose a bigger hazard than the new strains of drug resistant tuberculosis that have already surged in developing countries and terrified the developed world.

Curiously, bird flu has been around for years, and has been infecting humans since 1997. The rate of human infection has galloped in the last year, and every day it gets grimmer. The only way to check this is by sharing information. Regional and international borders become irrelevant in the face of this global danger.

Given this reality, it's time the international community wakes up and helps poorer countries battle this virus. The worst affected countries are in Southeast Asia, and now Bangladesh seems to be in the thick of it, even though it doesn't want to admit it - like China chose to downplay it in the initial stages, causing much harm to the world's health.

West Bengal may have contained the present crisis, but the virus is not about to go away. And it may have already spread to neighbouring Bihar, Orissa and other states. Besides, the northeastern states bordering Bangladesh are probably infected as well. And it may have spread to Nepal, given the open borders and dodgy trade routes that operate through the narrow stretch of West Bengal between Bangladesh and Nepal - popularly and quite innocently known as the Chicken's Neck.

Like India, Bangladesh too is densely populated and the poor have very little access to healthcare or sanitation, have even less awareness of the dangers or ways to prevent infection, and also raise chicken and ducks in their backyards. Once infected, it is ideal breeding ground for the bird flu. Unlike India, though, Bangladesh is still in denial and refuses to see the threat or share information on it.

Unless the international community steps in, it would be very difficult to fight this global threat. We need to think long-term and address trade practices, poultry rearing norms, lifestyle changes, health infrastructure and general education. Because the bird flu is not just a localised, temporary crisis. Headless chickens, as Ronen Sen would confirm, are just the beginning.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not of Sify.com

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