As the authorities probe whether India may have its first cases of human bird flu infection, villagers in eastern India are buying cheap chicken despite warning from authorities.
West Bengal state's animal resources minister Anisur Rahaman said officials were 'determined to cull all poultry in the districts in three or four days, otherwise the state will face a disaster'.
AdvertisementEight districts have been hit by the virus -- more than 100,000 bird deaths have been reported -- with teams racing to cull two million chickens and ducks.
Health officials in New Delhi said they were analysing blood samples from close to 800 people from the affected areas who have complained of fever.
If any of the tests are positive, it would be the first case of human infection in India, home to 1.1 billion people.
The latest outbreak, which began in the village of Margram, is the third and worst to hit India since 2006.
Federal Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said that so far no human infections had been confirmed, but attacked the state administration for its handling of the situation.
'There was a delay of nearly a week for notices to be sent to us but now things have been put on track... it could have been handled better,' Ramadoss told reporters in New Delhi.
On the ground, culling teams have been facing an uphill battle, with villagers smuggling birds out of affected areas and selling them in open markets.
Thirty-year-old Sheikh Ali, a vendor in Birbhum's Gharisa market, 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Margram, said the sale of poultry had doubled in the past week. 'The prices of chicken have come down from 60 rupees (1.50 dollars) to 20 rupees per kilogramme (2.2 pounds).
'Poor villagers are feasting on chicken. At normal times, they cannot afford to buy as prices are so high. Now they are enjoying the meat,' Ali said.
Another villager in the affected area, Mohammed Mohsin, said: 'Earlier, it was a luxury to have chicken even once in a month in our family... (Now) I am eating chicken daily at lunch and dinner.'
The drop in poultry prices was also hailed by vendors.
'Bird flu has opened an opportunity to earn some extra money for small traders like me,' said Amit Chatterjee, unloading baskets of live birds from a truck at Gharisa.
And small trader Mukhtar Ali, 30, said could not remember a time when business was so good. 'Now I am selling 40 to 50 kilogrammes of poultry daily and the stock is sold out in the first hour of the day,' he told AFP, barely looking up from his chopping board as he packed up a fresh chicken for one of his many customers. 'The customers are mostly poor people.'
In one affected area, police seized two trucks of smuggled poultry early Tuesday but culling teams were yet to arrive at the spot, an AFP correspondent said.
'Poultry owners are smuggling their birds out at night and transporting it to different places for fear of culling,' said Shubhendu Mahato, a security guard at Arambagh Hatchery, one of the biggest in West Bengal.
Neighbouring Nepal, which has banned poultry imports from India since 2006, said its border posts were on high alert.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh, which also borders West Bengal, was battling its own serious outbreak -- with experts warning the situation was far worse than the government was letting on.
'Bird flu is now everywhere. Every day we have reports of birds dying in farms,' said leading poultry expert and treasurer of the Bangladesh Poultry Association M.M Khan.
'Things are now very, very serious and public health is under danger. The government is trying to suppress the whole scenario,' Khan said, adding that farmers were also holding back from reporting cases.
People typically catch bird flu by coming into direct contact with infected poultry, but experts fear a pandemic if the H5N1 mutates into a form easily transmissible between humans.
Migratory birds have been largely blamed for the global spread of the disease, which has killed more than 200 people worldwide since 2003.