Three Coachella Valley sentinel chickens test positive for West Nile



INDIO, CA - Three sentinel chickens in Eastern Coachella Valley have tested positive for West Nile virus, according to the Coachella Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District.

Two of the sentinel chickens which tested positive were from a flock situated near Highway 111 and State Park Road, just north of the Salton Sea. The other sentinel chicken found positive for the virus was from a flock west of the Salton Sea, near 81st Avenue and Highway 86.

Blood samples from the sentinel chickens were taken August 4 and tested in a California Department of Public Health lab. These are the first sentinel chickens to test positive for the virus this year in the Coachella Valley and the first sign of the virus west of the Salton Sea.

Eight mosquito samples tested positive for the virus in July.

“The Coachella Valley has been fortunate this year because West Nile virus showed up a little later than usual,” says District Vector Ecologist, Gregory S. White, PhD. “But now that we are detecting the virus in our sentinel chicken flocks west of the sea, we know the virus is spreading and we encourage people to protect themselves from potentially infected mosquitoes.”

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans and animals, including sentinel chickens, through the bite of an infected mosquito. Vector Control keeps sentinel chicken coops across the Valley to help detect the presence, intensity, and duration of transmission of mosquito-borne diseases in the area.

Sentinel chickens do not get sick and are not capable of transmitting the virus to other mosquitoes. Mosquitoes acquire West Nile virus by feeding on infected birds. Most individuals infected with West Nile virus will not experience any illness. Others will have mild symptoms, such as fever, headache, and body aches. However, young children, the elderly, or individuals with lowered immune systems are at greater risk of experiencing more severe symptoms when infected. Anyone with symptoms should contact their health care provider.

So far in California, 57 people from 13 counties have tested positive for the virus this year. Four people have died. There have been no human cases detected in Riverside County in 2014.

What are Sentinel Chickens?



It takes brave heroes to keep a state as hopeless as California safe and strong. Many of those men and women wear uniforms and walk the streets patrolling our neighborhoods, classrooms, borders and coffee shops. There are other heroes however, in the California story, whose heroism is not written of in any history books. Who die alone on cold nights on the front lines, even their names wiped out – remembered as only a number in the civil code.

These heroes don’t wear uniforms but feathers. And beaks. They don’t ride out in the streets accepting our praise, but sit in tiny boxes, waiting to see if they get a disease. So you and I don’t ever have to.

They are our Sentinel Chickens, and when you go to sleep tonight, you can sleep comfortably knowing they are out there watching over you.

According to a paper by Dr Vicki Kramer of the California Department of Health Services, the state program was established in 1979. As of 2001, the last public accounting this reporter could find, 46 separate agencies across the state were maintaining 191 flocks of these brave birds.

Their use for “surveillance of mosquito transmitted avian encephalitic viruses (arboviruses) was pioneered by Dr. William Reeves of the University of California at Berkeley in 1943, according to a UC Davis report. The report continues, saying chickens were chosen to fight this terrible brave battle for us because:

1) they are susceptible to these viruses and develop an antibody response that can be measured, 2) they produce very little virus and, therefore, would not pass virus on to feeding mosquitoes, other animals, or human handlers, and 3) their infection with an arbovirus rarely results in illness or death

While their watch is a lonely one, their lot in life has improved somewhat of late. Vacation time is still rare. Hazard pay nonexistent. However, according to Kramer’s report, when inspecting them the “bleeding method changed from jugular puncture to a lancet prick of the hen’s comb.” Certainly far, far preferable. Jugular puncture is an indignity no hero should ever be subjected to by his or her own government.

This year, to date, 217 brave California Sentinel Chickens have given their lives to West Nile Virus on their mission. As a result, only one human has succumbed to the disease in 2012.

In the words of Aaron Sorkin and Jack Nicholson, “we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You?” And sometime those walls have to be guarded by men with feathers. Tonight, when you lay down to sleep, West Nile free, give thanks that those feathers are not in your hands.