KARACHI, July 21: The unscientific approach officially adopted to handle the Newcastle disease outbreak seems to be playing havoc with the eco-system in Tharparkar district which has been witnessing peafowl deaths since April, it emerged in interviews with experts on Sunday.
Vaccination, they said, was a preventive medical measure and was not carried out when there was a disease outbreak of the relevant infection (as currently the case in Tharparkar district) as it could aggravate the epidemic. They also pointed out that there was no concept of administering vaccine in the wild in the world.
What also came as a surprise during the interviews was that no efficacy tests were ever conducted to see the success rate of the method adopted for vaccine administration.
There was also a lack of coordination among provincial and federal government departments — a lab in Islamabad had found that it is a new strain of the Newcastle disease virus infecting the peafowl, but provincial officials expressed their ignorance about it.
“A new virus strain (genotype VII) of Newcastle disease is killing peafowl. This has been discovered from the sample analysis taken from infected peafowl three to four weeks ago. Sample analysis was also done last year. It is the same strain which caused mortalities at poultry farms in the country,” said a scientist associated with an animal laboratory operating under the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC).
The finding, he said, was the result of the analysis of 190 samples taken from the poultry farms across the country, including Karachi, last year. The information about the new strain of the Newcastle disease virus (NDV) had been passed on to relevant provincial departments.
The vaccine for the new strain, he said, had been locally developed and was being used on a small scale at poultry farms.
“A research paper has been published on the new strain. The study investigated how the virus evolved and took a distinctively different form,” he said.
Regarding animal vaccination, he said: “Only captive animals are administered vaccine in a controlled environment the world over. As the disease has been causing mortalities over the past few years and is apparently being spread from infected poultry birds to wild peafowl population, the right approach should have been to focus on poultry farms in the affected and surrounding districts and carried out extensive vaccination against the viral disease there.”
A specified dose of vaccine, he said, was required to be administered to an animal in a controlled environment. The dose had an effect for a specified time.
Seconding his opinion, Dr Najam Khurshid, former Ramsar regional coordinator for Asia and former conservation director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) now working with the Global Environmental Management Services, said that it was a disastrous idea of saving a species at the cost of a dozen other species.
“There is no concept of carrying out vaccination in the wild animal population. The adopted method (mixing vaccine with the water placed for wild peafowl at selected places in affected villages) is an unprofessional idea and poses a serious threat to the survival of other species which would come in contact with the vaccine-mixed water,” he said.
Besides, he said, protection acquired through vaccination was for a limited period so that one should look for the root-causes of frequent disease outbreaks. “Poultry farms should have been focused first,” he added.
“Secondly, infected peafowl should be separated and vaccinated. As the third step, attempts should be made to net, vaccinate and tag wild population one by one,” he said, adding that unless bio-safety measures were adopted at poultry farms and vaccination was carried out, the containment of the NDV in peafowl population was impossible.
Both experts stressed the need for a massive awareness campaign of proper disposal of animal carcasses in local communities.
Speaking to Dawn, Hussain Bakhsh Bhagat, wildlife conservator, Sindh, said that so far 52 peafowl had died in four talukas (Diplo, Mithi, Chachharo and Nagarparkar) of Tharparkar district since April (some media reports put the peafowl death toll at over 80 only in recent weeks).
“There are only nine affected villages out of 1,300. So far, we have completed vaccination in 300 villages. The target is to take the campaign up to at least 700 villages. This is subject to vaccine availability,” he said.
Asked about why vaccination was being carried out when an outbreak prevailed, he said that though vaccination should have been carried out last year from October to November, the department started a vaccination campaign when it received a warning in April when deaths occurred at poultry farms.
On vaccination procedure, he said that infected animals were isolated and vaccinated in some cases while in other vaccine vials were handed over to villagers after educating them about their use and disposal of vaccine vials. The method of mixing vaccine with water had been recommended by government vets dealing with poultry.
“Ninety-five per cent of peafowl population lives in villages inhabited by non-Muslims who have a tradition of taking care of the bird by providing them with water and grain. But we do monitor the progress by getting a feedback from them on how much vaccine vials they have used,” he said while pointing out that the department had only 30 people working in the field.
Information about the new NDV strain, he said, had not yet reached him, though concerns had been raised at a recent meeting about the possibility of new strain infecting peafowl.
“The chief minister and the minister are taking personal interest in the matter and required funds are being made available,” he said.
Mr Bhagat said that there were no commercial poultry farms in Tharparkar district, though people kept poultry at homes. Most of those birds were bought at commercial farms located in Badin, Mirpurkhas and Umerkot, he said.
Speaking about concerns over vaccine administration to wild animal population, Dr Nazeer Kalhoro, director of the government-run Sindh Poultry Vaccine Centre, said: “The kind of problems we are facing here are different to what happens abroad. Having said that, there is no doubt that vaccine administration is a technical matter and requires a technical hand.”
Vaccination, he said, should have been done at least two months prior to the disease outbreak otherwise it could ‘aggravate the problem by making more birds ill.”
“The vaccine contains live virus, though in a weak form. When a bird carrying the virus gets a vaccination dose, it would increase the viral strength in its body and make it ill,” he explained, while admitting that no tests were conducted to see the efficacy of the method adopted to vaccinate birds in the wild.
The technical staff, he said, should have handled and monitored the entire procedure of giving vaccine as it required specified dose that should be given to birds in a specified time. The vials should also be carefully disposed of either by burning them safely or burying the waste in a ditch. The bowl containing vaccine-mixed water should be washed with detergent.
The origin of infection, he said, hadn’t been confirmed yet whereas the information on the new NDV strain in infected peafowl population hadn’t been studied.
“The vaccine being used provides complete protection against any variation in the virus strain, though we do need a vaccine specially prepared for peafowl. There is absolutely no harm if other birds are drinking the vaccine-mixed water since they could also be virus-carrier,” he said.
The government, he said, had recently accepted a proposal for a Rs14 million project to set up nursing homes in Mithi and Karachi for treating sick peafowl and to carry out vaccination by the end of this year.
“Arrival of the monsoon rains could help solve the problem as most birds are dying of hunger,” he said.