Red channel: A compendium of hazards facing the traveller

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The Independent Online
Chickens get badly treated by the travel industry. Served up for more airline meals than any other beasts, even their name is taken in vain: "Headless chickens", for example, is a description that might be applied to crowds at Heathrow terminal three. Now, they are even suffering for the sake of travellers' health - and could help save travellers' lives.

This week while checking out a rumour about a lethal disease in Florida, I stumbled upon the concept of the sentinel chicken. This is not a new in-flight meal, but the term for a bird whose role in life is to warn of the spread of disease.

Sentinel chickens are caged and exposed to the bites of mosquitoes. Scientists test their blood looking for antibodies to various diseases, including the one I was tracking - St Louis encephalitis, a mozzie-borne illness that attacks the brain and spinal cord. Sentinel chickens in Florida are showing signs of an upsurge of the disease.

So far, there have been no human victims of the present outbreak, but evidence from the last one, in 1990, is disturbing. CNN quotes officials in Orange County - where Disney World is located - as saying that cases in humans began three to six weeks after the virus was first detected in the sentinel chickens. In 1990, it killed 11 people in Florida.

Dr Peter Barrett, of the Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad (MASTA), says that visitors to Florida should take precautions against mosquito bites. And I say think about ordering a vegetarian meal, to spare the suffering of another poor chicken.

MASTA: 0891 224100 (a premium-rate call).