Avian influenza strikes early and hard, leaving Kerala’s poultry industry in peril

The state braces for this viral threat during the colder months of November and December. However, this year, the outbreak emerged in April.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published Jul 09, 2024 | 3:16 PM Updated Jul 09, 2024 | 3:16 PM

Avian influenza strikes early and hard, leaving Kerala’s poultry industry in peril

Kerala’s poultry industry is in shambles!

Avian influenza, usually a winter woe, has ruffled Kerala’s feathers with a surprise attack in April. The unwelcome guest wreaked havoc in Alappuzha, Kottayam, and Pathanamthitta, with Alappuzha feeling the brunt of the outbreak.

Egg and meat farmers, the backbone of the poultry industry, are especially stressed.  Not only are they dealing with lost birds due to illness and culling, but they also fear a second wave as the year progresses.

This unusual timing throws a wrench into their operations and raises concerns about the future.

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An early threat

Avian influenza or Bird flu is a disease caused by a virus that mainly affects birds but can also affect mammals, including humans.

Traditionally, the state braces for this viral threat during the colder months of November and December. However, this year, the outbreak emerged in April.

Avian influenza in Kerala.

Avian influenza in Kerala. (Click on the image to enlarge)

One of the main doubts is that migratory birds and crows might have spread the disease to domestic duck and poultry farms in the state. It was a government-appointed panel of experts who pinpointed migratory birds and crows as the suspected carriers.

A study carried out by them found that the disease may have spread through the movement of birds from one place to another.

“These birds were likely infected by migratory birds and also spread the disease through their sale,” reads an excerpt from the report.

The report further highlighted the improper disposal of remains, feed, and droppings of birds that died from Avian influenza as a significant factor in transmission. Additionally, the uncontrolled movement of birds between farms, including supervisors visiting multiple locations, facilitated the spread.

In the case of supervisors, the committee found that their movement from the integrated farms in Cherthala and Thanneermukkom in Alappuzha to other diseases only helped to exacerbate the situation.

Also read: Bird flu outbreak: Over 53,000 domestic birds culled in Kerala’s Alappuzha

The impact

While Avian influenza has been recorded in the state since 2014, primarily amongst ducks, this year saw a worrying shift. Broiler chickens, egg chickens, peacocks, crows, and other birds fell victim to the fast-spreading virus, a strain of H5N1.

The state reported 37 epicenters, (Alappuzha – 29, Kottayam – 5 and Pathanamthitta – 3) with a staggering death toll of 62,334 birds across the three districts.

Culling of birds

To curb the spread, authorities had to cull an additional 1,87,880 birds.

“With over 62,334 birds succumbing to the virus and an additional 1,87,880 culled to control the spread, farmers have faced a massive decline in their flocks. This translates to a significant loss of income from both egg and meat production,” a representative of the Kerala Duck Farmers’ Association at Haripad, Alappuzha told South First.

According to the representative, the recommendation of the expert committee that the ban on bird sales and movement within and outside the affected districts until March 2025 may further cripple their ability to earn a living. Farmers who rely on selling chicks or breeding stock are left with stagnant businesses.

“The unexpected early outbreak and the aggressive spread of the virus have created a sense of uncertainty and fear among farmers. We worry about the long-term viability of maintaining poultry farms, especially with the restrictions on restocking and movement,” he said.

When asked about whether they received compensation for the deaths as well as the culling of the ducks at Haripad constituency, the representative said, “As per official statistics, bird flu resulted in the killing of 11,939 ducks in the constituency in April.”

“An estimated loss of ₹24.92 lakhs has also been assessed. But the compensation has not been disbursed,” he added.

However, the Animal Husbandry Department stated that the compensation for the Kuttanad farmers has been disbursed through the State Animal Disease Control Project Coordinator’s Office.

Also read: Kerala issues advisory after bird flu outbreak in Alappuzha

Expert committee recommendations

At the same time, the expert committee, comprising specialists from Animal Husbandry and scientists from the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, emphasised the strict implementation of the 2021 National Action Plan for bird flu prevention and control.

Another key recommendation included a ban on bird sales and movement within and outside the affected districts until March 2025. This directive encompasses government farms and hatcheries in the area.

The panel stressed the importance of proper and scientific disposal of dead birds, along with monthly sample collection and testing in the Kuttanad region until March 2025.

The report advocated for mandatory registration of private chicken and duck farms at government veterinary hospitals, along with mandatory licensing by local governing bodies.

Screening for the avian influenza virus in eggs and chicks brought in from other states was another crucial suggestion.

Biosecurity audits in private poultry farms conducted every four months by the government were proposed along with setting a limit on the number of ducks allowed per farm (3,000 to 5,000) and per panchayat area (based on land area).

The panel recommended issuing licenses only to approved slaughterhouses for chicken and duck meat processing, while also banning the disposal of waste from poultry farms into rivers and canals.

The committee thus has recommended short-term and long-term plans in place to effectively prevent future outbreaks of Avian influenza and protect its poultry industry.

According to Animal Husbandry Minister J Chinchurani, the recommendations will be carefully examined, and follow-up actions will be initiated.

It is also learned that the minister will soon convene a meeting of MLAs from the affected districts to brief them on the situation and discuss actions to support the poultry farmers, who fear a recurring wave, adding another layer of stress to their already precarious situation.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)

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