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 normal level.

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 industry."

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.