Presence of West Nile Virus in county sentinel chicken leads commissioner to call for public disclosure

County health officials explain that the low level of the virus’s presence does not portend a problem, but they advise people to protect against all mosquito-borne illnesses

The county has sentinel roosters and hens. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The county has sentinel roosters and hens. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Much attention has been put on the Zika virus in Florida in past months, but the focus for Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson turned late last week to a different mosquito-borne illness.

And even though the county’s health official explained that the situation did not warrant a public advisory, Robinson argued that disclosure is always the best policy for government. Especially given the abundance of rain the area has been coping with over the past couple of weeks and a hurricane potentially bearing down on Florida, Robinson told The Sarasota News Leader she felt an announcement would encourage people to do all they could to prevent mosquito breeding and to protect themselves from bites.

On Sept. 30, as she read the latest report from the Sarasota County Mosquito Management Division, the line that caught Robinson’s eye said, “One sentinel chicken was confirmed with West Nile Virus in rural Sarasota.”

Sarasota County Mosquito Management maintains 13 sentinel chicken flocks — with six chickens per flock — as a means of determining the presence of mosquito-borne diseases around the county, Dianne Shipley, public information and communication coordinator for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, explained to the News Leader in response to a request for information. “A small blood sample is taken every week to test for a range of mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus (WNV), St. Louis Encephalitis (SLE), Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) or other mosquito-borne diseases,” Shipley wrote.

“The presence of disease in chickens does not mean that it will be transmitted to humans, but is an indicator that disease is present and risk for human transmission is heightened,” Shipley noted, adding that the county’s sentinel chicken flocks “do not show notable evidence of West Nile Virus (WNV) transmission or other mosquito-borne diseases in Sarasota County. However, the risk of mosquito-borne diseases increases in the summer and continues into the fall.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people infected with West Nile Virus will show no signs of it. However, one in five will develop a fever and other symptoms, such as a headache, body aches, joint pain or rash, the CDC says.

In 1% of cases, those infected “develop a serious, sometimes fatal, neurologic illness,” the CDC website says. No medications are available to treat the virus, the website notes, so prevention is the key.

Public awareness

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

Robinson’s immediate reaction after reading the report was to ask Donn Patchen, the county’s communications director, whether he and his staff had or would be issuing a press release about the West Nile virus having been detected in that single chicken.

Patchen’s response was that nothing had been sent out, but he and his staff were checking with the Health Department. “We typically follow their lead on these issues.”

She wrote him back: “We know about it and the public has a right to know. Immediately.” She added, “This is not dissimilar to public notification of pollution. If there is a health question we need to get it out there ASAP.”

Just a short while later, Chuck Henry, director of the county’s Health and Human Services department and health officer for the Department of Health, provided an explanation about why no public announcement was warranted under the circumstances. Essentially, Henry pointed out that the presence of the virus in just one chicken did not indicate a threat to the public in regard to mosquito-borne illnesses.

Robinson wrote him back, saying, “I respectfully disagree,” noting that she planned to contact several publications. The News Leader was among those to whom she sent the email chain.

In response to a follow-up question from the News Leader, she wrote, “I do understand that this does not meet state health standards for issuing an advisory. But when I step back and take a look at this as a citizen, I ask myself, would I want to know? The answer is yes. Knowledge is power and it will help me be vigilant in protecting my family and ridding my home of breeding sources, especially with the rain we have had.”

The county's Mosquito Management Services offers recommendations and undertakes precautionary measures such as spraying. Image from the county webpage
The county’s Mosquito Management Services offers assistance to the public and undertakes precautionary measures, such as spraying. Image from the county webpage

In an email Shipley sent the News Leader on Oct. 4, she explained, “We follow guidelines established by the Florida Department of Health (DOH) for disease monitoring and reporting. This includes decision guidelines for issuing mosquito-borne illness advisories. We work closely with Sarasota County Mosquito Management in monitoring for a variety of mosquito-borne diseases.”

Chuck Henry. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County
Chuck Henry. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

Shipley continued, “This issue is quite different from other potential environmental exposures,” as low levels of disease-causing organisms normally are present in the community. “We have many systems in place to monitor those levels and provide the appropriate warning to the public if they reach levels that may indicate increased possibilities for human transmission.”

Shipley pointed out, for example, that in Sarasota County seven chickens have been identified this calendar year with West Nile Virus. Last year, she continued, there were eight, and in 2011 the total was 29. “There is a certain level of WNV activity present year-round in the natural environment,” she explained. “We monitor that activity through surveillance of human disease, sentinel chickens, and actual mosquito counts. If levels of virus activity increase above what we expect as background, it would trigger a public notification through and advisory.”

Shipley also pointed out that mosquito-borne viruses do not hurt the chickens, but the birds’ immune systems generate antibodies to fight the viruses. “If those antibodies show up in the tests, health officials can warn residents to avoid mosquitoes, and mosquito control units can better focus and intensify their efforts.”

Shipley added, “We continue to reinforce the need for all residents to [do the following]: Drain standing water in and around your home and cover skin with clothing and an EPA-registered insect repellent.”