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Avian influenza (AI), commonly known as bird flu, typically causes little or no harm to its wild waterfowl hosts. In 2003-2004, however, nine Asian countries reported unprecedented outbreaks of high-mortality AI in domestic poultry. This viral lineage, subtype H5N1, has spread to over 60 countries, and is considered endemic in at least four.

In India, H5N1 outbreaks were first recorded in 2006, and have continued each year since, reaching a total of 86 by 2012. Millions of India’s chickens and ducks have been culled in efforts to contain and eliminate the virus. India has declared itself free of AI a number of times since 2006—but the virus has continued to resurface.

From 2003 to 2011, 576 cases of human H5N1 infection were reported, with two-thirds in east and southeast Asia. Of those infected, only 41% survived. Though there have yet been no direct bird-to-human cases reported in India, the greatest concern is that a virus such as H5N1 could mutate to acquire easy human transmissibility (perhaps by combining with swine-origin H1N1). In 2009 H1N1 spread rapidly throughout India in 2-3 months infecting an estimated excess of 10 million people. Imagine if the mortality rate was 60%, like H5N1, instead of 0.02%?

The emergence of such high-pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI) viruses is likely facilitated by aspects of industrial poultry and egg production. Industry trade journal World Poultry listed some factors that make intensive poultry facilities such “ideal” “breeding grounds for disease”9: “inadequate ventilation, high stocking density, poor litter conditions, poor hygiene, high ammonia level, concurrent diseases and secondary infections.” These conditions not only diminish animal welfare, but may help produce a pathogen with pandemic potential.