How 139 flocks of sentinel chickens help keep you safe from deadly diseases

From The Press-Telegram
March 29, 2018

It was 6 a.m. and the sun wasn’t due up for another hour. But vector ecologists Harold Morales and Steve Vetrone were already on the road.

The pair spend most of their days tracking and studying mosquitoes to tamp down the spread of deadly diseases, such as West Nile Virus. But last Tuesday, the pair headed to San Jacinto to snag a semi-secret, very scientific, virus-fighting weapon.

Chickens. Sentinel Chickens.

“These guys are out on duty every night,” said Susanne Kluh, the director of scientific-technical services for the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control. “I love our little guardians.”

For decades, vector-control agencies in California, responsible for fighting insidious disease-carrying pests and rodents, have relied on the domesticated fowl as a surveillance tool to predict when human cases of West Nile Virus and St. Louis Encephalitis are likely to occur.

They are, in a way, the perfect canary in the coal mine for such a task: They sit in coops throughout Southern California 24 hours a day, seven days a week, waiting to get bit. And unlike canaries, the first to die in the mines, chickens don’t get sick from the diseases they contract. Rather, they form antibodies that allow vector control to test their blood.

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