MAREKS VACCINATIONS- OUR POLICY
About as thought provoking as the age-old question of whether the chicken came before the egg is the question of whether or not to vaccinate that same bird against Mareks Disease. As with most arguments, there are two very distinct and valid viewpoints, with benefits and drawbacks to each. One side feels it would be irresponsible not to take whatever steps possible, regardless of ultimate efficacy and safety, to safeguard their flocks against disease. The other side feels it’s equally irresponsible to expose birds to chemical agents in any fashion, and that ultimately this is what causes the animal’s susceptibility to disease- if not the disease itself.
We do NOT vaccinate the chicks we sell for Mareks Disease, and this article aims to explain the reasoning behind this choice.
Mareks disease is a herpes-type virus and is the most common disease amongst chickens. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that if you have chickens, it’s almost certain that they have either contracted the disease and survived, or that they are carriers. In short, the Mareks virus is everywhere and is unavoidable. Birds may recover from Mareks and live long, otherwise healthy lives, but there is no cure for the disease. Mareks symptoms can be similar to a variety of other ailments which makes it very difficult to diagnose, and there are few diagnostic tests that can be done on live birds to determine definitively if they are indeed infected with the disease,. Actual determination of infection is generally made after the bird’s death via necropsy, when the tell-tale tumors, lesions and nerve tissue inflammation caused by the disease can be seen.
Mareks is spread in numerous ways including bird-to-bird contact, “feather dust,” the shoes, hands and clothing of bird owners and wild birds. The virus lives in the soil without a host for long periods of time and cannot be eradicated by thorough coop cleaning.
The only recognized “prevention” of the virus is through the vaccination of day-old chicks. While this sounds simple enough, it is not a complete answer to the problem or a guaranteed safety net. Mareks is not transmitted via eggs, so all chicks are hatched “clean” of the virus and inherit a small but short-lived amount of resistance to it for the first few days of life. Vaccinated chicks are injected with a strain of turkey Mareks, giving them a “lab created” version of the virus and consequently some antibodies that help them to better resist the chicken strain of the disease. The birds may still contract the disease to a lesser extent and recover, but will show no lesions or ill-affects from the virus, which is all that can be expected from the vaccine in the first place (the prevention of lesions). However, Mareks vaccinations are not 100% effective, and we have personally witnessed instances of vaccinated birds who have eventually died from the virus, fully affected and filled with the tumors and lesions generally associated with an unvaccinated bird.
We have posed our question regarding the vaccination of birds to a host of veterinarians, Agricultural Extension Agents, college professors, farmers and lifetime poultry enthusiasts, and the responses have been as varied as the people themselves. Usually, the first reasoning presented as to why NOT to vaccinate a small flock addresses the expense. The Mareks vaccine is only available in 1000 dose vials and is for large commercial hatcheries and poultry operations. For this reason, some people argue that the vaccine is clearly not manufactured nor intended for small flocks in the first place. The vaccine must be used within hours of activation and cannot be stored and used again. Therefore, purchasing the medication ($29.00 plus $12 shipping and the cost of syringes) each time 2 or 3 chicks emerge from the incubator is not cost effective. While certainly a consideration, we weren’t willing to accept cost as the only determining factor in making our decision for or against vaccinating. If we had been convinced without a doubt that vaccination was the best and only option, we would have simply levied a mandatory vaccination fee and raised the cost of our birds to cover the expense.
Another strong voice against vaccination came from people who raise their animals according to strict organic standards and want access to birds who have not been chemically altered or compromised in any way. While the government places most vaccinations into the category of safe and “acceptable exceptions” to organic practices and principles, the fact is that the vaccines do include a chemical component to them, and history has repeatedly shown that certain substances once deemed entirely safe by the government have, over time, proven to be anything but. Many people felt very strongly about having this choice taken away from them. It is probably for this reason that most retail stores honor a customer’s right of choice and do not sell vaccinated chicks.
Of all the expert opinions we heard on the subject, the most convincing testimonies came from life-long farmers and poultry enthusiasts that hail from generations before the prevalence of chemicals and government regulation. We heard story after story of thousands of healthy birds being raised over their lifetimes without the assistance (or interference) of vaccines or medications. They talked about the importance of breeding vigorous, resilient stock to begin with, and the impact and significance of focusing on those characteristics seen in their own birds as well as those of their parent's and grandparent's flocks. The overwhelming credo of these folks was to raise healthy birds to begin with, and to do so naturally. That is not to say that healthy birds are automatically immune to all illness, but rather that birds of strong constitutions and vigor are more apt to recover from or fight off infection than birds of weaker quality with compromised immune systems.
There is no shortage of horror stories about how our country’s food supply is being genetically altered and tampered with. The fact that this is done without the People’s consent can make them feel helpless to make decisions regarding their own health and welfare. We believe that consumers should have the final word regarding what their food sources are exposed to, and therefore, after months of deliberation and research, we ultimately made the decision not to vaccinate the chicks we offer for sale. We do keep a turkey on the premises with our laying flock, however. Quite by coincidence (as the turkey has always been part of our family), We came across an article that discussed the use of turkeys in chicken flocks for the natural prevention of Mareks. The logic behind the idea is that vaccinations are comprised of the turkey strain of the Mareks virus, and that having a turkey which (in theory) routinely sheds the same virus would naturally expose the other birds, giving them all the beneficial antibodies without the chemical component. While we are not certain as to the validity or soundness of this practice, we have not had a significant problem with the virus over the years, either.
What we WILL do is to continue to focus our efforts into raising healthy, vigorous birds and protect these birds via vigilant bio-security practices and high standards of cleanliness and care. We are also constantly researching holistic remedies that may help even organic flock owners in the fight against poultry ailments and diseases- a few that are even proving beneficial to birds already infected with Mareks.
What can YOU do? Practice bio-security in your own flock. Do not let people who have birds interact with yours. It’s the same principle as a family sharing germs and being fine, but then getting sick when an outsider visits with a different strain of germs. Operate on a “closed flock” principle and if you must make exceptions, make sure the hands and shoes of your visitors have been disinfected to the best of your ability. Walk-on mats can be purchased specifically for this purpose. Also, know your birds. Ruffled, hunched birds with their rears to the ground are sick. Separate sick birds from the rest of your flock and take appropriate action as quickly as possible.
If you feel strongly that you want your birds vaccinated, it is an option for you to do this yourself. While it’s optimal to vaccinate chicks during their first day or two of life (and before any possible exposure to other birds or viruses), some people routinely give the vaccine at later times, as well as booster shots (usually at the 6 week mark). Mareks generally presents in birds ranging from 5-25 weeks, so it is debatable as to whether or not this provides additional protection when the birds have most likely already been exposed to the virus naturally. You can purchase the vaccine online from a number of veterinary supply stores and the necessary syringes from medical supply retailers. The vaccine is given subcutaneously- several good tutorial articles on administration techniques are available online.