Mosquitoes’ taste for fowl keys disease defense
By WILLIAM M. HARTNETT
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Florida’s first line of defense against West Nile virus is lying on its back, strapped to a wooden contraption on the tailgate of a pickup, its legs held aloft in a pair of stirrups.
With a flick of his thumb, a man named Bob, who will later observe that “bleeding comes easy to me,” deftly uncaps a syringe in his right hand as he holds the “patient” steady with his left hand. And just as Bob is about to slide the needle into a vein, a slow, pathetic and low, almost pleading, sound resonates from deep within the creature’s throat:
This is the sound of a desperate chicken, an unwitting barometer of our viral health. Blood samples from this particular hen, in Fort Pierce, and special chicken flocks across the Treasure Coast are taken each week so health officials can track three types of mosquito-borne viruses: St. Louis, Eastern Equine and this year’s newcomer, West Nile.
“The chickens are a very good disease indicator,” said Gene Lemire, Martin County’s mosquito control director. “Nothing is foolproof, but in the past with St. Louis encephalitis, they’ve given us an early warning.”
Chickens are an effective way to monitor for viruses because they’re cheap, easy to test and require relatively little care, Lemire said. And like everything else with blood that’s stuck outdoors, mosquitoes bite them. A lot.
None of the “sentinel chickens” in Martin or St. Lucie counties has tested positive for any of the viruses this year. Each virus can, in humans, lead to encephalitis, a potentially serious brain inflammation.
The elderly are especially vulnerable to falling ill from the viruses, but most people who contract them feel only flu-like symptoms or don’t get sick at all. In rare cases, however, they can be fatal: A 9-year-old Okaloosa County boy died from Eastern Equine in July.
Two human cases of West Nile have been confirmed in Florida, both in Madison County. State Department of Health officials have issued a medical alert for West Nile and Eastern Equine in Madison and 28 other North Florida counties.
“It’s really just a matter of time before it gets here,” said Robert Washam, Martin County’s environmental health director.
Though the type of mosquito that carries Eastern Equine is not typically found in this part of the state, Washam said the species that transmit West Nile are common to South Florida.
If, or when, West Nile gets here, it could first appear in the mild-mannered hens tended to by Bob Seaborn, who works for the St. Lucie County Mosquito Control District. Seaborn is responsible for taking care of 24 sentinel chickens, which are divided into four flocks, one in each corner of the county.
He also collects blood samples every Thursday from roughly May to the end of the year. To hold the chickens in place while he slides a syringe into a vein under their right wing, Seaborn uses a wooden bench that features straps and stirrups. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the lethal-injection gurney upon which Death Row inmates are executed, only smaller.
“We’ve heard it compared to worse things than that,” Seaborn said with a tactful lack of elaboration.
Some chickens close their eyes and appear to go to sleep while they donate blood. Others watch intently as Seaborn sticks them with a needle.
“I wish you wouldn’t look at me when I do this,” he tells one chicken while drawing its blood. “It really doesn’t hurt the chicken. They just don’t want to be there on their back. That’s not a natural position.”
The samples are sent to a state Department of Health laboratory in Tampa for testing. If a chicken tests positive for one of the viruses, a second sample is sent to the lab. If the second test confirms the presence of a virus, the chicken is killed, buried and replaced in the monitoring flock by a fresh fowl.
Martin County’s Mosquito Control Department maintains flocks in Jensen Beach, Palm City, Hobe Sound, Indiantown and Clementsville, a rural area north of Indiantown. Martin County collects blood samples from its chickens using a slightly different method from St. Lucie County, said Lou Campona, who takes care of the chickens.
Rather than strapping the hens to a makeshift examination table, Campona said they’re put “in a semi-conscious state,” which is to say they’re grabbed by the legs and swung through the air until they’re good and dizzy. As unpleasant as it sounds, Campona said the chickens are back to normal within 30 seconds.
Despite the swingings and bleedings, Campona said, he gets along well with the chickens and treats them like pets. When they act up and cause a ruckus, he tries to calm them with kind words. Not that they listen.
“I say, ‘OK girls, that’s it. Settle down in there.’ They don’t listen, but it’s fun anyway.”
Copyright 2001 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
August 20, 2001 Monday
MARTIN-ST. LUCIE EDITION
SECTION: LOCAL, Pg. 1B
LENGTH: 809 words