Almost 6300 Americans contracted the West Nile virus this year. And 133 of them died. Each season, health officials scramble to predict where the virus will strike before it affects humans. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on a experimental approach being used in Canada that might make that information faster and easier to collect:
Almost 63 hundred Americans contracted the West Nile virus this year. And one
hundred 33 of
them died. Each season, health officials scramble to predict where the virus will
strike before it
affects humans. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on a
approach being used in Canada that might make that information faster and easier to
(sound of chickens)
Stephen Burgess stands in front of a chicken coop. He holds an egg carton in one
slowly lifting the coop’s plywood cover. He carefully collects a dozen eggs that
have rolled into a
trough at the back of the cage.
From here, he’ll visit thirty more sites around Ottawa, Canada’s capital.
Collecting eggs from
small farmers as well as test flocks set up around the city. It’s a new form of a
warning system that’s used for the West Nile virus – the sentinel chicken flock.
But in this case,
it’s the eggs that are tested, not the chickens.
“Many states in the United States are using chickens but they are taking blood
samples from the
chickens every one to two weeks. The approach that we’re doing is we’re able to
West Nile virus by looking for specific proteins in the eggs.”
Burgess says this offers researchers some distinct advantages. Blood sampling
requires the use of
trained technicians – one to hold the bird while the other draws blood. This causes
stress to the
chicken. And it poses a danger to the humans who are handling the blood samples.
Two people have been infected with West Nile virus while collecting chicken blood.
says the nice thing about eggs is that they pose no risk to humans, and they’re easy
“If you want to go and look at a particular county, you can say, go out and collect
every egg from
every backyard flock this week and you can have a flash snapshot of what is the
the county and that was totally unfeasible using previous approaches.”
Burgess is leading a pilot project to test out this approach in the Ottawa region.
He’s a biochemist
by training and runs a company with Hugh Fackrell, a microbiologist at the
Windsor. The two had been working in the lab, trying identify antibodies in animal
spring, they stumbled upon a method that they say reveals the complete immune
profile of a
chicken by examining its egg.
For now, they’re keeping that method a secret – until it’s patented. But it was
enough to convince
Ontario’s Ministry of Health to fast track a pilot project for this fall.
Dave Jensen is a spokesman with the ministry.
“We’re interested in testing out this approach because it offers both a less
invasive way of getting
test results and a way of getting more of them than doing it the way we have been.”
The project has also attracted the attention of researchers at the U.S. Centers for
Jennifer Brown is a scientist at the CDC’s West Nile headquarters in Fort Collins,
“This is very new work and it’s very interesting. We’re really looking forward to
results of this pilot study, but I think it’s too early to say how useful it’s going
to be in future West
Nile surveillance efforts.”
For instance, Brown says it might require a redesign of the sentinel chicken cages
“If you had an egg that was positive for West Nile antibodies, you would want to
chicken it came from and you would want to know how many chickens in the flock were
eggs that contained West Nile antibody.”
At this point, the pilot project is not that specific. Researchers are looking for
evidence of West
Nile in each flock, rather than the individual birds.
But Stephen Burgess, the pilot project’s director, is taking the idea into account.
He plans to
deliver a final report on the project in December. He’ll consider what worked, and
improving. And he hopes to demonstrate that testing eggs can provide a safer, and
alternative for tracking the West Nile virus.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.