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North Carolina Recruits Chickens In War Against Mosquito-Spread Diseases

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WAKE COUNTY — North Carolina has been a leader in the fight against mosquito-spread viruses, thanks in part to chickens.

Five chickens in the backyard of a Wake County home are on the front line in the battle to preserve public health. The sentinel flock is one of 54 strategically placed in mosquito-prone spots across North Carolina.

"We've been doing it for about 20 years now," says state medical entomologist Dr. Barry Engber. "By using chickens, we can put them in a location and periodically bleed them and see whether there has been any transmission of the virus to the chickens."

Engber says scientists have used the chickens to detect Eastern Equine Encephalitis for years. This summer, they will also test for the mosquito-carried West Nile virus.

Last summer, the West Nile virus killed seven people in New York, raising concerns that it might spread through migrating birds and mosquitoes along the East Coast.

If bitten by an infected mosquito, a person may experience headaches, swollen glands, muscle aches and other flu-like symptoms. In severe cases, it can cause infection of the brain.

If the virus is detected in North Carolina, entomologists will immediately send out the alert to local health departments.

"They, in turn, will increase their mosquito patrol efforts in the area," Engber says. "We'll let people know that there's increased virus activity and they need to make an effort to cut their exposure to mosquitoes."

This year, the federal government is helping pay for prevention programs, such as the sentinel chickens, in several eastern states. The West Nile Virus has never been found in North Carolina.


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