There has been a surge in avian influenza or bird flu cases in the country as authorities fear the disease may be spreading rapidly beyond the seven states confirmed to have been afflicted so far, after reports of "unusual bird mortality" from new areas.
Regions where H1N8 cases have been confirmed are spread out across the country, forming a south-to-north arc, which raises the threat for other central and eastern states, an official said.
Scientists have confirmed the current H1 strain is transmissible from birds to humans, although such a risk is currently low.
Bird flu epidemics have been confirmed so far by the Bhopal-based National Institute of High Security Animal Disease (NIHSAD) in Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
Avian flu has significant economic impact. Poultry farmers in these states said they were counting losses from decimated farms.
The flu has a domino effect in related supply chains. When chicken prices crash, they tend to bring down maize prices too, hurting farm incomes, said Abhishek Agrawal of Comtrade, a commodities firm. Maize is a major feed used for poultry.
Test results are awaited for Delhi and Maharashtra, where "unusual mortality of birds" has been witnessed, according to an official statement.
While some samples from Balod in Chhattisgarh tested negative, the state still faces a higher threat level because of more death of birds reported in the past 24 hours, an official of the animal husbandry department said.
"The virus involved is zoonotic," said C. Tosh, a senior scientist from NIHSAD. The term zoonotic refers to any pathogen that can be transmitted from animals to humans.
India has one of the highest incidences of bird flu outbreaks globally because it lies underneath three transnational flight paths of migratory birds, showing how difficult it is to prevent poultry diseases in the country.
Bird flu epidemics have occurred 24 times in the country since the first outbreak 2004. The last outbreak happened in 2016, when the flu tore through poultry in Delhi, Kerala, Punjab and MP.
Kerala and Haryana have completed several rounds of culling in accordance with national animal-disease guidelines.
Avian flu mostly comes from infected wild birds, which shed the virus in their faeces. In India, the disease mostly is spread by migratory birds, such as geese, ducks and shorebirds.
"I have lost about Rs40,000 worth of new chicks," said Rohit Mann Singh, the proprietor of Mann Poultry in Rajasthan's Kota.
Since 2004, compensation worth ₹400 crore from federal funds was given to poultry farmers who faced the epidemic, aside from financial aid from states.
Fresh positive samples were found from two poultry farms in Panchkula district of Haryana. The state has deployed nine rapid response teams. "Control and containment operation is under way in both the epicentres," the statement cited above said.
Fresh samples of crow and wild birds have been confirmed for bird flu from Surat in Gujarat and Sirohi of Rajasthan. "Further, reports of unusual deaths of 86 crows and two egrets were received from Kangra district (Himachal Pradesh)," the statement said.
Besides, reports of unusual mortality of wild birds have also been received from Nahan, Bilaspur and Mandi in Himachal Pradesh and samples have been sent to the designated laboratories for testing.
Bird flu is thought to have arrived through the western coast in the first week of January. On January 5, there were 12 confirmed epicentres in Rajasthan (Baran, Kota, Jhalawar), Madhya Pradesh (Mandsaur, Indore, Malwa), Himachal Pradesh (Kangra) and Kerala (Kottayam, Allapuzha). Allapuzha itself had four epicentres.
A department of dairy and animal husbandry official said control and containment had been completed in both the affected districts of Kerala.
The Centre has deployed several teams, which are currently touring hot spots to oversee management operations, which includes culling, prevention and surveillance.
One Central team is in Kerala since January 9, monitoring the epicentre sites and carrying out epidemiological investigation. Another Central team reached Himachal Pradesh on January 10, and is undertaking surveys in affected zones.
Special drives were being undertaken in lakes and water bodies as they are known to destination sites for wild birds.
States have been asked to increase surveillance around water bodies, live-bird markets, zoos and poultry farms. Federal teams are assisting local authorities for proper disposal of carcass and strengthening of bio-security in poultry farms.