In last-minute preparations to brace for the deadly West Nile virus reaching Arizona this summer, health officials from across the state gathered Thursday in the East Valley to learn how to draw blood from chickens.
Informally called "chicken stickin’," the procedure could be the first way we will know the virus has come to the state.
"They act as canaries in a coal mine," said Craig Levy, vector-borne disease program manager for the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Seventeen chicken flocks are scattered across the state as part of the testing program. They’ll be checked every two weeks starting later this month, when the virus could start its movement into Arizona.
Officials said there is no doubt West Nile will appear this summer. The rapidly spreading virus has swept across the nation since it appeared in New York in 1999. It reached 44 states by last year and killed 277 Americans.
West Nile is transmitted primarily through mosquitoes that draw blood from infected animals and birds. The mosquitoes could pass the virus to nearly any animal, which is why officials also will test horses, mosquitoes, wild birds and people for West Nile in a coordinated detection plan.
The virus could reach the state any time, any place. It could spread slowly from western Colorado or New Mexico, where it showed up last year. Or it could hit multiple parts of Arizona at once from migrating birds as they return to their summer homes, Levy said.
Health officials also are working to reduce mosquito numbers to prevent infections. Counties are urging homeowners to dry up breeding grounds near their homes where mosquitoes could lay eggs. The pesky bug can hatch when its egg is in water for as little as two days. Health officials urge homeowners to look for standing water in buckets or other containers that sometimes clutter back yards.
Mosquitoes cannot fly far, so cleaning up one’s immediate surrounding can greatly reduce the number of bugs — and odds of contracting whatever they may carry.
"People can do more to protect themselves from the West Nile virus than the government can," Levy said.