Poultry meat is off the menus in Karachi —
individual, collective and commercial. Though the strain of the disease
found here is not dangerous to human health, unlike the deadly virus
reported across several countries in other parts of Asia the news of
human deaths in Vietnam and Thailand has shied away people here to
voluntary shun eating chicken despite the fact that the virus cannot be
transmitted to humans through poultry meat or eggs but is primary spread
only through close contact with infected chicken.
The milder strain of the virus wiped out almost
one-third or as much as 4 million layer chickens, the egg-giving
variety, in and around Karachi in November and December. The poultry
industry as well as the government have, however, say that the broiler
chickens, farmed mainly for meat, are not affected by the virus adding
that poultry meat and eggs are as safe as ever for human consumption.
Unlike the deadly H5N1 strain, that took 6 lives and killed 10 million
birds in Thailand and resulted in the culling of over 3 million chickens
and claimed 19 lives in Vietnam, the government advertisement aimed at
helping the ailing industry, said that birds are hit by milder form of
the flu (identified only as H5) and poultry meat and eggs are totally
safe for consumption.
However, the World Health Organisation has identified
the strains found in the poultry population in and around Karachi as
H7N3, H9N2 and H7N7, the last of which it says was capable of infecting
the humans. Conflicting reports have confused the people to a point
where they have stopped eating chicken altogether.
Avian influenza is not a new phenomenon. It was first
identified in Italy over a century ago. All birds, particularly farmed
poultry, are susceptible to the virus which normally does not infect any
species other than birds. However, it first spread among humans in Hong
Kong where it infected 18 persons in 1997 six of whom died. Hong Kong
had to cull the entire population of 1.5 million birds to effectively
stop the deadly H5N1 virus in its track. The primary cause of the
infection then, as now, was close contact with the birds and not eating
of the meat or eggs.
The latest outbreak is much more deadly because it
has emerged in 12 countries — simultaneously — and has a far higher
mortality ratio of 70 per cent compared to 33 per cent in Hong Kong
seven years ago. WHO has confirmed the presence of deadly H5N1 in
Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Laos.
Milder strains of the virus is also reported in Taiwan and Pakistan in
Asia and in Delaware, USA where over 12,000 birds were culled. In all
some 80 million birds are killed or culled by the virus across 8
countries in Asia.
The abstinence has taken a heavy financial toll on
the poultry industry. The price of live broiler birds has tumbled to
lowest in years — falling by over 50 percent in a short period of less
than 5 weeks from Rs 68 per kilo on January 1 to Rs 32 per kilo at
present. The wholesale price of eggs, fixed daily by the Pakistan
Poultry Association (PPA), has nosedived from over Rs 1,000 per 30 dozen
to Rs 500 per 30 dozen during the same period. The retail price of eggs
has also bottomed out to Rs 20 a dozen compared to over Rs 46 a dozen
just 5 weeks ago. There are little buyers for some 360,000 dozens eggs
that still flow into the city everyday. Though things have started to
improve the chicken and egg consumption stills remains way below the
The consumption of poultry has also taken a severe
beating. The convenor of Press and Public Relations Sub-committee of
Pakistan Poultry Association, Abdul Maroof Siddiqi, told PAGE
that prior to January the weekly demand for live chicken in and around
the city stood between 2.4-2.5 million birds which has fallen by as much
as 60 per cent fluctuating between 875,000-1,050,000 presently. Others,
however, say that the daily demand of live birds has taken a much more
severe beating of as high as 83 per cent falling from 300,000-350,000 to
just 50,000-60,000 numbers today.
According to Siddiqi, poultry farmers have already
suffered losses that run between Rs 6 billion to 7 billion, both in lost
sales and the wiping out of one third of the Layer stocks that alone
cost the farmers over Rs 900 million. It would take months, perhaps
years, to replenish the layer stocks.
A number of countries including UAE, Japan, EU, and
recently India, has slapped a ban on import of poultry and eggs from
many countries including Pakistan. According to Siddiqi an extended ban
would hurt an already badly hit Pakistani poultry industry even more.
"UAE is the primary market of day-old chicks and hatching eggs
which fetch Pakistani poultry industry almost the entire $ 15 million
from poultry exports. The ban means the loss of sizeable revenue to the
Despite the fact that the deadliest strain of the
virus, no matter how fatal it could be for the chickens, cannot infect
the humans through meat or eggs unless eaten raw — avian flu is not a
food-borne disease — there are certain things that have to be watched
to ensure that it does not infect the human population in Pakistan.
Prominent physician and former President of Pakistan
Medical Association, Dr Tipu Sultan, told that the milder strain here is
neither harmful to animals nor it can develop into the deadly H5N1
strain. "Eat chicken and eat eggs, the doctors are eating it."
The mere fact that some 250,000-300,000 people are
directly or indirectly associated to poultry industry in Karachi alone
asks the attention of the officials of the related departments to ensure
that no human shall be infected with the disease which primary spreads
through close contacts. Avian flu may not be a food-borne disease but it
certainly could be fatal if mixed with human influenza.