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First bird flu death of the year

Poultry farms in Maharashtra. Concept. Scenes from inside a poultry farm in Sangli, Maharashtra. Image credit: dinodia / 123rf. Bird flu illustration.
Scenes from inside a poultry farm in Sangli, Maharashtra. Image credit: dinodia / 123rf

India experienced its first confirmed human death due to bird flu this week, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) has said. 

An eleven-year-old boy, who was also affected by leukaemia and pneumonia, was admitted to AIIMS in Delhi on July 2nd, having contracted a bird flu virus of the H5N1 strain. He tragically succumbed to the virus on Tuesday after experiencing multi-organ failure. Surveillance in his home state of Haryana has been stepped up, according to the Animal Husbandry Department, which said no suspected cases of bird flu have been found as of yet. The boy’s family and the health workers who treated him are in isolation. Contact tracing is in place and the Health Ministry has announced an epidemiological investigation, efforts geared towards virus control, and genome sequencing. A team from the National Centre for Disease Control has been dispatched to the boy’s home village. 

Bird flu is caused by avian influenza Type A viruses, which occur naturally in birds. The disease, whilst not easily transmissible to humans, has a high mortality rate of sixty percent, hence the alarm. As explained by the World Health Organization (WHO), “the primary risk factor for human infection appears to be direct or indirect exposure to infected live or dead poultry or contaminated environments, such as live bird markets. Slaughtering, defeathering, handling carcasses of infected poultry, and preparing poultry for consumption, especially in household settings, are also likely to be risk factors.” 

India is no stranger to bird flu outbreaks, having experienced a number of them in recent decades. Just this year, the country witnessed outbreaks of bird flu in multiple states, sparking alarm especially as the country continued to be embattled by the COVID-19 pandemic which is ongoing. Cases of the H5N1 and H5N8 strains were confirmed, prompting measures such as bans on sales of poultry and plans to cull tens of thousands of poultry birds. Nonetheless, AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria has urged calm.

“The transmission of the virus from birds to humans is rare and sustained human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 virus has not yet been established and therefore there is no need to panic,” he said. “But then people working closely with poultry must take precautionary measures and maintain proper personal hygiene.” 

Dr Neeraj Nischal, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at AIIMS, added “although few isolated family clusters have been reported, transmission in these clusters may have occurred through common exposure and in rare situation a very close physical contact; there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission via small-particle aerosols. Serologic surveys have not found evidence of asymptomatic infections among contacts of active cases and nosocomial transmission to healthcare workers has not been documented.” 

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