Chickens stand sentinel against mosquito-borne disease in Florida

Antibodies in the birds reveal when certain viral pathogens are being transmitted locally

Leghorn chicken

ON GUARD  Florida’s sentinel chicken programs may include Leghorn (shown), Barred Rock or Rhode Island Red breeds.

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For 40 years, they’ve held the front line in Florida’s fight against mosquito-borne diseases. And it turns out that the chickens standing sentinel in cities, marshes, woodlands and residential backyards are clucking good at their job.

Last year, chickens in 268 coops in over a third of Florida’s counties provided scientists weekly blood samples that revealed whether the birds had been bitten by mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus or the Eastern equine encephalitis or St. Louis encephalitis viruses.

If a chicken’s blood tests positive for antibodies to one of those viruses, authorities know that the pathogen is circulating. And if enough birds have the antibodies, state officials can ratchet up mosquito-killing measures such as pesticide spraying to help halt disease spread.

The sentinel chicken surveillance programs are “a really good way of monitoring” for certain virus activity, says Thomas Unnasch, a biologist who studies vector-borne diseases at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The birds “are sampling literally hundreds or thousands of mosquitoes every day,” he says. (The chickens can’t keep tabs on dengue or Zika; the mosquitoes carrying those viruses prefer to bite people rather than birds.)  

chicken bloodwork
SAMPLE TIME A field worker draws blood from a vein under the wing of a sentinel chicken in Charlotte County, Fla. Blood samples are sent to a lab that tests for antibodies to certain mosquito-borne diseases. Courtesy of Charlotte County, Fla.
In 2018, 833 chickens tested positive for West Nile virus antibodies in Florida, but only 39 people did, according to data from the state’s health department. For Eastern equine encephalitis virus, 154 chickens tested positive in 2018, compared with only three people.

Chickens that test positive for the viruses being surveyed don’t transmit them, and people don’t either. Both are considered “dead-end hosts,” meaning that the viral concentration in the blood doesn’t get high enough to infect another mosquito after it bites. Infected cardinals, robins and other backyard birds are the animal reservoirs that help keep the three viruses spreading in the area.

Sentinel chickens, by detecting where and when disease-carrying mosquitoes are buzzing, are also providing valuable data on how a virus can spread. Data from 2005 to 2016 revealed that Eastern equine encephalitis virus is active year-round in the Florida panhandle, making the area a source from which the virus moves elsewhere in the state and along the eastern United States, Unnasch and his colleagues report online March 11 in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

In people, the viral diseases monitored by the chickens are relatively rare, but can be deadly. The chickens don’t get especially sick, though. “You don’t usually see any symptoms at all,” Unnasch says.

Any chicken whose blood tests positive for the antibodies is removed from the coops since that bird can no longer alert authorities to a new infection. For these chickens, retirement may be spent on a farm, with school or 4-H clubs, or in a backyard coop, depending on the county. The sentinel chicken programs are ready with replacements, raising chicks to supply new birds to signal “where we have a threat to human health,” Unnasch says.

THE NEXT GENERATION When these day-old chicks being raised by the sentinel chicken program in Charlotte County, Fla., are 10 to 12 weeks old, they will get to work monitoring mosquito activity.Courtesy of Charlotte County, Fla.

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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