Avian Flu Outbreak in India Results in Mass Poultry Culls

No cases of avian flu have been detected in humans during the current outbreak

Three people wearing full personal protective equipment dispose of several dead ducks in a bag
Health workers in protective suits cull ducks in Karuvatta after the H5N8 bird flu strain was detected. Photo by ARUNCHANDRA BOSE/AFP via Getty Image

Avian influenza has killed thousands of migratory birds, crows and poultry across at least six Indian states in recent weeks. Now, the country has enacted orders to cull poultry housed near outbreak epicenters, reports the Agence France Presse (AFP).

India has seen several avian flu outbreaks in recent years, including 2014, 2018 and 2019, and they usually occur when migratory birds pass through the region in winter. This year, officials have detected two strains of the influenza virus circulating among birds across India. The viruses, which are named based on different versions of the molecules that stud their surfaces, are the H5N1 and H5N8 types.

Avian flu is a different type of influenza virus than the ones that normally infect humans each winter, but the health experts worry that at some point, an avian flu strain could find a way to infect and pass between humans. Measures like culling domestic birds near outbreak areas limit the chances that such a jump could happen.

The federal government has asked states to be on “high alert” and take “urgent measures” to reduce the spread of the avian influenza, reports BBC News.

The H5N8 avian flu has killed about 12,000 ducks in Kerala, a state in southern India, per the AFP. The state plans to cull more than 38,000 birds with the help of nineteen rapid response teams, Rhea Mogul and Swati Gupta report for CNN. The teams are culling domesticated birds and, in some regions, their eggs as well.

Meanwhile, migratory birds in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh tested positive for the H5N1 avian flu virus. Thousands of birds, mostly bar-headed geese, died of the infection.

“The death toll in the last week or so at the Pong lake crossed 2,400 migratory birds. Over 600 birds died on Monday,” says state wildlife chief Archana Sharma to the AFP.

Western states have seen hundreds of crow deaths associated with H5N1 and H5N8 infections in recent weeks, per the AFP.

"The birds affected are migratory birds. All we can do is follow the strategy of clearing up the area of contamination,” explains Sharma to CNN. “We comb the entire area of the sanctuary and we physically send 10 teams every day who search for any dead birds and dispose of them.”

Although the news of the avian flu outbreaks is unsettling, officials have made assurances that the situation is under control. Last winter, several countries along migratory birds’ routes experienced avian flu outbreaks, according to the World Health Organization. The domestic birds caught the disease from wild birds, and it did not pass to humans. In 2008, India saw its most devastating avian flu outbreak which resulted in the culling of millions of domesticated birds, per the AFP.

Avian influenza can infect more than 100 species of wild birds and poultry. Culling measures help to limit opportunities for the virus to jump from the birds into people. The virus passes from animal to animal through the birds’ saliva, nasal secretions and feces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In rare cases, the virus can pass from those substances to people directly, but the virus can also reach humans by jumping from a bird to another animal like a pig, and then into people.

According to the CDC website, avian influenza A viruses rarely infect humans and typically occur exposure to infected poultry.

India has not detected any cases of avian flu in people during the current outbreak. On Wednesday, Minister of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries Giriraj Singh told public service broadcaster Doordarshan, "There is no need to panic,” CNN reports.