I knew that the Northern Territory was filled with interesting Outback dangers: crocodiles, extreme heat, wallet-nipping Next G charges. But I didn't realise my health was in the hands of flocks of sentinel chickens.
But upon visiting the Alice Springs Airport site the other day to track down a transfer bus, my eye was immediately caught by a grim-looking warning (in DOC format) about Murray Valley encephalitis (MVE) and Kunjin disease, both mosquito-borne maladies that are common in the area.
What really grabbed my attention was the explanation of how the disease was detected, straight from the mouth of Territory medical entomologist Peter Whelan:
Recent testing of the sentinel chickens in Tennant Creek, Katherine and northwest Western Australia indicates that the widespread activity of the MVE and Kunjin viruses is continuing around the NT.
I had literally no idea that chickens played this important role, but a bit of quick searching suggests that such flocks are common across the country, and routinely referenced in health studies. Being bred purely to see if you can get bitten by mosquitoes doesn't sound like a great life, though I imagine it beats being a battery hen by a considerable margin.
The notion of sentinel chickens might seem amusing, but the consequences of MVE are pretty severe: there's been one recorded death this year and another confirmed case. In practical terms, that means another item added to my packing list — a small roll-on tube of Aerogard to keep the mozzies at bay.
Covering up is also suggested, which is good news for the only person on a plane to Alice Springs actually wearing a jacket. Now I just have to see if the most outlandish travel plan yet for this trip is going to come off.
Throughout May 2009, Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman will be travelling throughout Australia with just one carry-on bag for the Hand Luggage Only project.