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South Walton "sentinel chickens" test positive for West Nile virus

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Nine "sentinel chickens" deployed by the South Walton Mosquito Control District to alert the agency to the presence of West Nile virus were reported this week to be carrying the disease.

Although news of the chickens testing positive was enough to surprise some who attended Tuesday's meeting of the Mosquito Control District board, district Operations Manager Mike Yawn, who submitted the report, said there probably isn't anything to worry about.

A sentinel chicken peers out from its cage recently at South Walton Mosquito Control District.

"It may sound like a problem, but it (the virus) is always out there," Yawn said. 

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Sentinel chickens are put in what Yawn referred to as "traps" that are placed close to wooded areas around South Walton County. The chickens test positive for the disease when bitten by a mosquito carrying West Nile virus, which the insect had most likely picked up from a wild bird native to the area.

Yawn's report states two birds placed on County Road 393 South and in Eden Gardens State Park tested positive this week. Also, one bird tested positive at each of several traps placed at Big Red Fish Lake, Santa Rosa Golf Club, Bay Drive, a substation on County Road 30A and near the Bay County line.

Yawn said concern of possible human infection might have been greater had more birds at any single location tested positive for the virus.

Sentinel chickes roost recently at the South Walton Mosquiot Control District.

The Mosquito Control District's role in detecting the presence of West Nile virus was compared to that of a first responder or "collector of all local surveillance data" in literature provided by Shirley Steele, the agency's administrative assistant.

Should a West Nile virus health advisory or alert be warranted, it would be issued by the Walton County branch of the Florida Department of Health, Yawn said. No such advisory had been sent out as of Wednesday afternoon.

Walton County Health Department spokeswoman Patricia Roberts was not available for comment. 

Walton County had the dubious distinction in July 2015 of being the first county in Florida to confirm a case of West Nile virus in a human.

“An adult female” resident of Sandestin  was identified by the Department of Health at that time as the person who had contracted the illness. At the same time it was announced another Sandestin resident was being tested for the disease.

Another West Nile virus scare in Walton County occurred in 2016 after chickens tested positive. 

A Health Department news release that confirmed the 2015 case said that most people infected with West Nile virus, “approximately 80 percent,” exhibit no symptoms.

“In those people who develop them, most experience a mild illness with conditions like headache, fever, pain and fatigue,” the release said. “These typically appear between two and 14 days after the bite of an infected mosquito.

People over the age of 50 and those with weakened immune systems appear to be at greater risk for severe disease, the release said.

“There is no specific treatment for West Nile virus, and most mild infections are typically overcome with little or no medical intervention within a matter of weeks,” it said.

Those experiencing severe symptoms should seek medical attention, according to the release.

Prevention is key to avoiding West Nile virus infection, the release said.

“Stay safe by draining any standing water near or in your home, making sure that screens are intact and keeping your skin covered with clothing and mosquito repellent,” then Secretary of Health John Armstrong said.