It’s time to take a leaf out of Spain’s book, as complex lung ailments are being reported by city pulmonologists, thanks to a rise in pigeon population

A bird census carried out three years ago by citybased NGO Ecological Society had pegged the number of Rock Pigeons at 13,271 all over Pune. The population has increased since, with its impact felt on the health of citizens over this period of time. Today, pulmonologists in Pune are known to attend to three to four patients each week with lung ailments caused by pigeon droppings — a rarity just three years ago.

Forty-one-year-old Mohan Sonkamble (name changed to protect identity), who used to run a laundry, had to give up his favourite hobby of feeding pigeons. It’s tending to the same flock that has had him bed-ridden with acute and subacute hypersensitivity pneumonitis. He is presently on ventilator. “He has loved pigeons since he was a child and now the feathers and droppings have wreaked havoc on his system. His lungs stopped functioning, given the deposits of dust from droppings. It has also affected his heart.

We have no option but go for a lung transplant, which is not only beyond our means but also comes with no guarantee of success,” said his brother.

The cases of ailments are not localised in overpopulated and congested parts of the city. Given the corresponding rise in construction activity in and around the city — where the birds fly in to roost — the ailments have become widespread. As Dr Mahavir Modi, pulmonologist, Ruby Hall Clinic, said, “Illnesses driven by residue of pigeon droppings and feathers are affecting those living in posh areas as well. Most of them develop cough, which cannot be easily traced as the symptoms are that of an asthma patient.” Like Sonkamble, most patients are hit by acute and subacute hypersensitivity pneumonitis, where the patients’ lungs inflame from the inside, with early symptoms resembling pneumonia. “The patients do not respond to antibiotics and steroids have to be administered to them. The condition can get very serious with some even needing ICU care with a need for oxygen,” added Dr Modi.

In yet another case, the wife of a senior government employee residing in Erandwane has been a victim, too. She has been suffering from dry cough for six months and, at times, her face would blacken due to lack of oxygen supply. “She used to be treated for respiratory tract infection, but there was no let-up in her condition. After she tested negative for tuberculosis, we finally got a CT scan and blood test done, which revealed the ailment,” said her husband. He added that pigeon menace in their neighbourhood stops them from even opening windows and balcony doors. “There is a shop nearby and the owner puts out food for the pigeons over there. This has led to a spurt in pigeon population here,” he added.

Such patients, with repeated exposure to the birds, are also likely to become victims of lung fibrosis, which can be devastating with no cure available. “Besides these, they are also carriers for many deadly fungi and atypical bacteria, which can cause diseases like cryptococcosis and histoplasmosis (fungal lung infections) and psitacosis (bacterial lung infection) — all of them rare and hard to diagnose,” said Modi.

Dr Nitin Abhyankar, a pulmonologist from Poona Hospital, said pigeons lead to 60 per cent cases of hypersensitivity pneumonitis among patients living in urban areas. “It is almost as if flying rodents are affecting people. While those with acute hypersensitivity can be treated with high dosages, it is extremely difficult to treat the patients who reach the chronic allergy stage,” said Abhyankar. Dr Sundeep Salvi, director of the Kalyani Nagar-based Chest Research Foundation, explained that the hypersensitivity pneumonitis or bhronchiolitis obliterans are known to block the small windpipe and sometimes affect the alveoli in the lungs. “The constant dry cough is known to last nearly four to six weeks. The diagnosis is difficult and a CT scan becomes imperative,” he said.

A Spanish town, Badia del Valles, near Barcelona, plagued by pigeons, has started mixing contraceptives in the bird feed to curb population, as some birds are known to have as many as 48 chicks a year. While there is yet to be an initiative of that scale here, Swati Gole, founder of Ecological Society, votes for a second census. “We want another survey to mark the change in the pigeon population. Since the pigeons are known to nest in buildings, with the rising settlements around us, their numbers are bound to have increased. Moreover, birds also thrive when they are fed with grain, which is common among Indians,” said Gole.

The constant dry cough is known to last nearly four to six weeks. The diagnosis is difficult and a CT scan becomes imperative


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