The first recorded cases of avian influenza, the bird flu, dates back to 1878. Up until 1995, cases of bird flu were mild and sporadic. As poultry production increased in the late ’90s, so did the number of bird flu cases. In 1996, the first incident of influenza A/H5N1 was found in a goose in China. Over the following decade there were more than 11 outbreaks of H5N1, sometimes infecting millions of birds. The infection is highly contagious and spreads quickly as birds migrate from one region to another. H5N1 is not an airborne disease, contamination comes from direct contact with nasal and ocular secretions and droppings. Still, a single infected bird can wipe out an entire poultry farm. If humans or other animals come in contact with secretions, droppings, or even consume improperly cooked meat or eggs from infected slaughtered birds, they too can become sick.
There have been more than 700 confirmed cases of humans becoming infected with H5N1, primarily throughout Asia. As the world is still reeling from COVID-19, officials are fearful of H5N1 spreading and make matters even worse. The global health and economic population could be devastated by a massive outbreak of the bird flu. Unfortunately, several cases of H5N1 have already been reported in the Indian states of Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, and Maharashtra. Surrounding states are on high alert to prevent the flu from spreading as winter migration commences. Uttarakhand in northern India is particularly vulnerable to H5N1 spreading into its borders as millions of birds migrate to the forests and wetlands of the state in the winter.
Over the course of 2 days this past January, the bodies of 5 birds were brought in to the veterinary office of Uttarakhand’s Dehradun district. It was confirmed that the birds died from an infection not related to H5N1. But officials in Uttarakhand are turning to modern technology, drones, to make sure that no infected birds enter the territory. Abhilasha Singh, Divisional Forest Officer of the Terai Central Forest Division (TCFD) is overseeing the mission using drones to monitor birds migrating from as far as Siberia. More than 100 species of birds will come to the Terai forests seeking refuge in the canopy. Singh said the drones will be used to patrol the Baigul Dam, Dora Dam, and Sharda Sagar Dam where birds congregate. If infected birds get into the water, the disease can quickly spread throughout Uttarakhand.
The drones will be used to take photos and videos of birds, observing them for signs of infection. Such symptoms would include irregular movements, lame limbs, and excessive secretions around the eyes and nasal openings. If any birds suspected of being infected are spotted, the drones will be used to track them so that officers from TCFD can capture, test, and dispose of them if necessary. If the drones spot any deceased birds they will be immediately brought in for laboratory testing. “The sole aim at present,” said TCFD officer Sandeep Kumar, “is to stay vigilant regarding bodies of migratory birds in water bodies and to keep a track of unhealthy birds.”
Along with using drones to track for potentially infected migratory birds, the Animal Husbandry Department of Uttarakhand has released guidelines for the district. The guide states, “Maintain self-distance and ensure to keep domestic birds at a distance from migratory birds. Ensure the migratory birds are not poached or hunted. Looping of trees should be done at poultry farms where other domestic birds sit. Unnecessary movement of people from outside must be stopped at poultry farms. Shoes, slippers should be sanitized with phenyl before entering poultry farms and vehicles must not be allowed to enter poultry farms.”
As alluded to in the guideline, with the influx of birds during this season, hunting in the forest also increases. People poach migratory birds for food sources and to sell to bird collectors. Many of the birds that migrate to Uttarakhand are protected species, valuable to poachers. If people are hunting wild birds, they can unknowingly trap an infected bird leading to the spread of the disease. As Kumar pointed out, the drones will simultaneously be used to prevent the illegal poaching of birds within the Terai forests.
KK Joshi, Director of the Animal Husbandry Department in Uttarakhand said, “No case of bird flu has been detected in the state so far, but all officials are on alert. Our district chief veterinary officers have started conducting inspections of sensitive areas.” If bird flu were to continue spreading throughout India it could wipe out poultry farms, putting a greater economic strain on a country that was recently ravaged by crop raiding locusts. Further, the avian flu could also spread to people, leading to yet another health crisis. With the advanced technology available with drones, Uttarakhand officials are feeling hopeful that they will be able to keep H5N1 at bay.