Chick-ola Spurrier: Meet the sentinel chickens keeping us safe from deadly disease

In a nondescript Murray Bridge backyard, five chooks play a crucial role in protecting us from mosquito-borne disease.

They don’t wear capes, or masks – in fact, these heroes don’t wear anything at all.

It sounds like something out of a children’s book, but yes: these five chickens have the job of keeping Murray Bridge and its people safe.

They’re called sentinel chickens.

They cannot leap tall buildings or fly faster than a speeding bullet.

But they can get bitten by mosquitos – and, through regular veterinary testing, give us all an early warning about any diseases those mozzies they might be carrying.

They are also pretty reliable egg layers, says Shane Hoare.

The Hoare family has kept Murray Bridge’s sentinel chickens for years now, so they are used to the odd routine of testing, usually every month, and a new flock of birds every year.

“The vet comes and checks the chooks, takes their blood and tests it for whatever diseases they might have,” he said.

“When the mosquitos bite them, they form antibodies to those things.”

No automated mosquito traps or unusual chemicals are required.

“It’s not what you’d call high-tech, is it?” Mr Hoare said.

SA Health provided the chooks’ house and pays for their food.

The Hoares keep the eggs and give away each generation of chickens after their 12-month tours of duty are done.

Mosquito bites can be dangerous, SA Health warns

SA Health’s sentinel chicken program was set up to monitor two diseases which pop up along the River Murray now and then.

Murray Valley encephalitis typically presents as a fever, headache, nausea and vomiting.

The Kunjin virus has similar symptoms, plus muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, rashes or swollen and aching joints.

Most people infected with either virus make a full recovery, or experience no symptoms.

However, a small number of infected people develop more serious symptoms, which can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

Mosquitos also carry the Ross River and Barmah Forest viruses, which are not monitored through sentinel chickens.

There is no vaccine or cure for any of the four mosquito-borne diseases found along the River Murray.

Health protection programs manager Andrew Vickers said SA Health’s sentinel chicken program had begun in 2013, two years after the last human cases were reported in South Australia.

“We were doing some opportunistic testing of commercial chicken flocks around the place (previously),” he said.

“As a consequence of that (2011) season, we decided to up our game.

“Chickens sero-convert very quickly to these viruses – they generate antibodies – and they’re very exposed out in the environment, so they’re great monitors for whether those viruses are prevalent in the community.”

Dedicated flocks of chickens are now tested every three to four weeks at Murtho, Loxton, Ramco, Fisher and Waltowa, as well as in Murray Bridge, during the summer mosquito season.

Murray Valley encephalitis and Kunjin were both detected in chickens at Meningie earlier this month and at Ramco last March.

Since then, SA Health has warned all South Australians, but especially those living within five to 10 kilometres of the river, to take steps to prevent mosquito bites:

  • Cover up exposed skin with loose-fitting, light-coloured clothing

  • Use insect repellent or mosquito coils

  • Fit doors and windows with mosquito-proof mesh

  • Prevent still bodies of water from forming around your house – in water tanks, pets' drinking containers, gutters, ponds and paddling pools

“Although these diseases are very rare ... (they) can result in fatality and permanent disability,” Mr Vickers said.

“Only a small percentage of people infected will progress to those bad outcomes, but those bad outcomes are real – the last time we did get infections, one of those people died.

“They can strike down anybody, any age, any health status.

“It really is worth your while to maintain an extra effort not to get bitten by mosquitos.”

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