India bird flu fight hampered22nd January 2008
A lack of education among local people about avian influenza is hampering efforts to contain an outbreak of the virus among poultry in India.
Health workers in the eastern state of West Bengal are urgently trying to educate villagers about bio-security, and prevent them from dumping dead poultry in ponds.
Officials said a planned cull of 400,000 chickens was not yet complete, and might take at least two more weeks to implement.
More than 60,000 birds have died of the H5N1 bird flu strain in three districts in the state, according to test results from the agriculture ministry.
Officials are also investigating bird deaths in three other districts, some of which lie more than 300 kilometres (180 miles) from the earlier outbreaks.
The wide area across which the outbreak has spread is alarming to health experts.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called the outbreak the most serious yet to emerge in India.
West Bengal's chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, said there was no need for panic, however.
Health officials and veterinary staff were warning villagers against dumping dead fowl in ponds and water tanks, as this would increase the likelihood of the virus spreading.
In Margram village, the epicentre of the outbreak, people were being urged to report all poultry deaths to the authorities.
Anisur Rahaman, the state's animal resources minister, said the lack of education among local people about bird flu had compounded the problems of the authorities and delayed the culling of birds.
Volunteers were trying to spread the word, as smiling children were seen holding up dead birds with their bare hands for television cameras.
Many villagers are refusing to hand over their poultry to veterinary staff for culling, saying the government compensation, equal to about a dollar a bird, was not enough.
The outbreak is the fourth to hit India since 2006, although no human infection has yet been reported.
Lab tests are still pending, but officials say they believe the poultry are infected with the most virulent form of H5N1, which has ripped through poultry flocks in Asia and Africa since 2003.
Most of West Bengal's border with Bangladesh has been sealed after the H5N1 virus spread to poultry in 25 of that country's 64 districts.
Scientists worry that H5N1 could mutate into a form able to pass easily between humans, sparking the next influenza pandemic and possibly killing millions.
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