Chickens on the front line in Florida's fight against mosquito-borne illnesses

Posted at 8:06 PM, Aug 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-02 20:11:37-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Parts of the state are now on alert after health officials in central Florida detected an uptick in mosquito-borne Eastern equine encephalitis.< /p>

Though it is rare, the virus can be deadly to humans — which is why scientists say chickens are so important. 

Since at least 1978, Florida has been using what are called sentinel chickens. Their job — get bit, then tested. They're spread out across Florida. Some counties have even created their own, like Leon.

“I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d be bleeding chickens for a living,” said Lawrence Medlock, who works with Leon County’s program.

Once a week, during mosquito season, he and some others head to coops across the county to snatch the birds, then draw blood from each.

“The challenge is to keep them still,” Medlock said with a chuckle. “They tend to get a little fidgety.” 

Vials are sent to state health officials who’ll analyze them for things like equine encephalitis or West Nile. What’s learned is invaluable. 

“They give us a quick snapshot of what kind of viruses, mosquito-borne diseases may be going on in a particular area,” said Aaron Ford, Leon County Mosquito Control Supervisor. “They’re a good resource, a good resource to have.”
The birds work well because, while their blood shows what mosquito viruses are present, they often don’t suffer the effects. They’re sort of canaries in a coal mine of disease. 

“We’re dealing with public health,” Medlock said. “Anytime you can do something for the public, give back to them, people don’t understand that this is a vital service.”

To Medlock, the chickens are more than just a resource — they’re a breakfast source. 
“My favorite part,” Medlock said, laughing. “They give eggs.”

So far this year, Florida Public Health hasn’t had a report of any people getting West Nile or encephalitis.

Experts there say the best advice to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes is using bug spray with DEET.