Bingiriya bird flu: Don’t panic, say health officials

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Health authorities urged the public not to panic following the outbreak of bird flu in Bingiriya.
It is not the virulent, highly pathogenic “avian flu” (A/H5N1) but a different virus (A/H5N2), stressed the Animal Production and Health Depatnent Director-General Dr. W.K. de Silva, while Health Ministry Additional Secretary Dr. Palitha Mahipala reiterated that the four hospitals in the area are on alert to deal with any emergency.

Health officials checking the chickens at a farm in Bingiriya. Pix by Pushpa Weerasekera

The Sunday Times learns that more than 5,000 chicken on two farms in Bingiriya have been ‘de-populated’ after some of them were confirmed as being infected with the low pathogenic H5N2.

Comparing the two viruses, Dr. de Silva said humans were at risk from H5N1 while with H5N2 there was no risk to humans. There should be no fear in eating chicken, he assured.

Sri Lanka has been able to ward off H5N1 so far, it is learnt. As a precautionary measure, teams from his department attired in protective gear sealed off the two farms, de-populated them and then disinfected them, he said. “We have to be careful and take all precautions as the virus could mutate into a more virulent form and cause problems for humans,” an official said.

The de-population was according to international guidelines by euthanizing them with gas, he explained, adding that at a meeting with Minister Arumugam Thondaman on Monday a decision was also taken to write to the Treasury requesting compensation for the farmer concerned.

With strong surveillance measures being in place since 2005 following the spread of H5N1 around the world, the three farms of this farmer had been under the microscope recently as in the last six months 300 birds had died there with post-mortems revealing the cause as chicken anaemia.

Pointing out that in H5N2 there is no transmission to humans, Dr. Mahipala of the Health Ministry said that hospital and field staff in the area were not only knowledgeable but also equipped to deal with any emergency.

Within a few hours of being alerted to this bird flu virus, the Additional Secretary had called a meeting of relevant officials, with two expert teams being sent to the area the following day to strengthen the knowledge of the staff there.

The four hospitals in and around the area -- Bingiriya, Hettipola, Kuliyapitiya and Chilaw -- are well-equipped and also stocked with the necessary drugs, the Sunday Times understands with the Chilaw District General Hospital and Kuliyapitiya Base Hospital having isolation facilities.

The staff is also capable of taking throat swabs if there are suspicions of a patient developing related symptoms and the Medical Research Institute has the laboratory facilities to test them. The MRI is also open 24 hours for such testing, added Dr. Mahipala.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), avian influenza (AI) is an infectious viral disease of birds (especially wild water fowl such as ducks and geese), often causing no apparent signs of illness. AI viruses can sometimes spread to domestic poultry and cause large-scale outbreaks of serious disease. Some of these AI viruses have also been reported to cross the species barrier and cause disease or subclinical infections in humans and other mammals.

AI viruses are divided into two groups based on their ability to cause disease in poultry: high pathogenicity or low pathogenicity. (Pathogenicity means the ability to cause disease.) Highly pathogenic viruses result in high death rates (up to 100% mortality within 48 hours) in some poultry species. Low pathogenicity viruses also cause outbreaks in poultry but are not generally associated with severe clinical disease, states the WHO.

As of January 24, this year, the cumulative number of “confirmed” human cases of avian flu (H5N1) recorded by the WHO was 583 of whom 344 (more than half) had died.

What is influenza?
It is a very infectious, airborne respiratory disease that spreads from one person to another through sneezing and coughing. The symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches that can lead to pneumonia and acute respiratory distress.

Influenza viruses are of three types - A, B and C. While all affect humans, the viruses of the A type primarily infect lower animals and birds. All 16 H subtypes of influenza A can infect birds. All outbreaks of the highly pathogenic avian flu have been caused by the sub-types H5 and H7.

Although bird flu viruses are not easily picked up by human beings, this could change due to either a mutation or genetic re-assortment, the Sunday Times understands. Re-assortment means the mixing of human and animal influenza genes.

Many have been the warnings that continuous transmission of avian influenza in poultry and human exposure may increase the possibility of the emergence of a pandemic virus. Such a virus will set off a pandemic. While an epidemic is an outbreak of disease that affects a large number of people, an epidemic that goes global is dubbed a pandemic.

Pigs infected with the avian, human or swine viruses could serve as the mixing vessels for the genetic material.

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