Sentinel chickens on duty: council screening for mosquito-borne diseases

Cadet building surveyor Brodie Hodges with Forbes Shire Council's flock of sentinel chickens. Picture: Supplied
Cadet building surveyor Brodie Hodges with Forbes Shire Council's flock of sentinel chickens. Picture: Supplied

These aren't just any chickens, they're sentinel chickens.

This humble little flock has an important role to play, particularly as the weather warms up and floodwater lies around Forbes and surrounds.

Routine monitoring of these chickens can give health authorities the first warnings that diseases such as Ross River Fever and Barmah Forrest virus are in the local mosquito population.

Forbes Shire Council general manager Steve Loane says the council traps mosquitoes and takes blood samples from the chickens to monitor for mosquito-borne diseases.

"It's incredible to imagine how important the humble chicken can be to communities like ours surrounded by water," Mr Loane said.

"We regularly test the blood of the chickens to keep an eye on and provide early warning for the diseases that may emerge, particularly post-flood.

"We take a blood sample from under the bird's wing, similar to a finger prick you would take for a diabetes test. This blood sample test is then sent on to Westmead for further analysis to isolate any virus present.

"When chickens are bitten by mosquitoes they don't get sick, unlike humans, this is why they are used to pick up such diseases as Ross River Fever, Murray Valley Encephalitis, Barmah Forest virus, and Kunjin virus."

The Sentinel Chicken Surveillance Program is used to provide an early warning of increased flavivirus activity in Australia.

The Arbovirus Lab is located at Westmead Hospital. In NSW, flocks are established in Bourke, Deniliquin, Griffith, Hay, Leeton, the Macquarie Marshes, Menindee, and Moree.

Forbes' central location makes it ideal.

"As well as monitoring the chickens we also catch mosquitoes in mossie traps to find out the abundance rate in our region," Mr Loane said.

 Forbes Shire Council traps mosquitoes to monitor for increases in population or in disease-carrying species. Picture: Supplied

Forbes Shire Council traps mosquitoes to monitor for increases in population or in disease-carrying species. Picture: Supplied

"Lately, Forbes has been identified as having high numbers, as many of you can attest to.

"It is also important to know which mozzies are active in an area as certain species are the carriers for the viruses.

"Would you believe there is a technician at the Entomology Lab in Sydney who is responsible for the identification of all mozzies trapped as part of the program."

Council and Health advice is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

"There is no vaccine and no cure for mosquito-borne diseases, and the only way of preventing diseases is to avoid being bitten," Mr Loane said.

"Wear long, loose-fitting, light-coloured clothing and use a quality repellent and try to stay indoors during dusk and dawn when mozzie activity is at its highest.

"Council is spraying its public spaces, sporting fields, parks and gardens until February 2022 to keep the numbers at bay.

"We encourage the community to be vigilant during the next few months."