November 2, 2010 | 6:00am
Since invading public consciousness years ago, the words West Nile instantly make people shudder. In fact, some of the most cautious people in Palm Beach have probably been wearing pants and long sleeves in the balmy days since October 26, when the county's health department issued a mosquito advisory, the first in years.
The Palm Beach DOH issues mosquito advisories when either the amount of sentinel chickens (used like canaries in coal mines) infected with mosquito-transmitted illness rises 10 percent above a baseline set by the Department of Health or a human case is detected. This year, no human cases have been reported in Palm Beach County, but sentinel chickens have been infected at rates much higher than recent years.
This news is cautionary to us but is better than you might expect for our feathered warning signals, according to Mary Echols, an environmental consultant for the Palm Beach Department of Health.
Chickens aren't affected by mosquito-transmitted diseases the way we are. "When they're bitten by the mosquitos, they will get the disease, but it will not make them sick," Echols says. "They have it in their blood, but they develop antibodies against it." The chickens, located in seven coops throughout Palm Beach county, are tested for West Nile, equine encephalitis, and St. Louis encephalitis, none of which harms them.
Once chickens are infected, they have the antibodies for life, rendering them useless as canaries or guinea pigs (if you will). What happens to them next? They go to a "retirement farm" in the western part of Palm Beach County -- so much in common with human retirees!
In the past, the county has replaced chickens about once a year, but this month, the entire fleet is being replaced because so many of them have recently become "positive" for disease. When chicken retirement locations become crowded, it's time for humans to take certain precautions -- check screens for holes, wear long sleeves if you can bear it, dispose of any standing water, and wear bug spray.
"The sentinel chickens really did their job this year, along with all of our staff who go out there week after week in the hot sun or the pouring rain. They deserve kudos," Echols says.