9406Singapore allergy to chickens, pet health and welfare educational for animal lovers, excerpts from The Glamorous Vets, Singapore, sponsored by  AsiaHomes Internet.

Can vets be allergic to chickens?

She was breathing heavily. She hunched her back as if, by doing so, she could breathe easier.  Her eyes were red and wet. Her mascara was messed up.  Her nostrils dripped a colourless watery discharge dissolving the foundation powder on the face.  She took out her Kleenex tissues from her blouse pocket to wipe away the wetness from her nose. 

The farmer and his daughter who had helped to catch the hens for blood collection were watching her strange behaviour.  We had not encountered such a situation. The farmer I was holding both legs to the hen to restrain it and I was  spreading out one wing of this Golden Comet layer hen so that Dr Melissa Chua could insert a needle into the big vein,  subsequently push the other end of the needle into the rubber cap of a vacuum-packed blood collection glass bottle of 5 ml capacity.  When she pushed the needle into the rubber cap, the vacuum was no more and the incoming air sucked in the blood from the vein.  Sometimes we could get 3 ml of the blood.  

Melissa was a laboratory veterinarian, good in her job of detecting viruses in chickens and pigs, the main focus of the Singapore agricultural department in the 1960s. I was an extension veterinarian helping the farmers to keep the flocks disease free.  The farmer had a productivity problem, not with his farm hands, but with his hens.  The hens just did not produce enough eggs as expected.   

It was a bright sunny morning with blue sky in the countryside which did not have any high rise apartments for miles around.  This was a bigger chicken farm in Choa Chu Kang.  More than thirty thousand hens laying eggs and being fed and watered automatically. A few thousand white broiler chickens reared for their meat were housed nearby.  

Could the hens be frightened by the military planes from the Tengah Air Base streaking across the sky now and then?   As the layer hens reach their peak in egg production, the egg numbers drop as much as thirty percent.  Soft egg shells, deformed egg shapes and watery egg yolks were produced by his flocks.

"Should I use the egg drop syndrome (EDS 76) vaccine? Some farmers are already using the vaccination.  They could get the vaccines from Malaysia." Mr Tan had informed me.  The problem affected him financially.  A few thousand eggs were not marketable and many more were not even laid by his prized hens. 

"You might be using the wrong vaccine as the cause was unknown." I said. The government department in charge of farms  had to approve the import of the EDS vaccine. To get approval, it must know that the disease existed.  Its existence had been confirmed by Dr Chua isolating the virus from the hens earlier.

Now, the bureaucrats wanted to know if the imported vaccines would be effective.  Which brand of vaccine to be approved?  This disease had been described 3 years ago in Europe and was called EDS 76 but was not reported in Singapore till now.

The farmer was persuaded to get his flock tested to check whether the vaccine would be effective, otherwise he could be wasting his money on unnecessary vaccination.  Half the number of hens in a house would not be vaccinated while the other half in the same house would be vaccinated.   Blood would be collected and analysed for the virus and viral antibodies.  In theory, the vaccinated chickens should not suffer from the EDS 76 as they would be protected by the vaccination.  

So here we were, taking blood from the wing vein of more than forty hens in their prime.   The laboratory veterinarian was hands on, so she took the blood while I held the wings down. 
Chicken dung piled up under the house
The air in an intensive chicken farm with over fifty thousand chickens had a distinctive acidic smell from the piles of chicken dung and chicken feathers under the houses of breeders and broilers.  The dung would form a small hill and the farmer usually clear them after a week or two.  The hot and humid climate of Singapore usually dried the dung but complaints of smell nuisance was not a problem as it would be in 2001 as new  HDB apartments are built near the farms.  The stench could be overpowering but not nauseating unlike pig waste. 

Over two thousand chickens in one long chicken houseTear drops involuntarily and copiously streaked down her face.  She would not stop working, just because she had a running nose and some discomfort. This was deemed unprofessional.  The sky was blue and a gentle  breeze was blowing more chicken fluff and allergens from the long houses of chickens for her to breathe.

"Melissa, you better get away," I pleaded.  She was now bent double. Soon she might stop breathing as the bronchioles and air passage ways in his lungs constrict and she might just die of respiratory failure.  She was young and so death had no meaning . She plodded on.  Five more hens to take blood.  

The farmer was concerned as he knew something was wrong with the animal doctor of chickens.  He puffed his cigarette more vigorously.  He could not tell the government veterinarian what to do as that would be impolite.  We were down to the last three hens for blood collection.   We needed a minimum number of samples to be able to analyze the results, not just one or two blood samples. 

The laboratory veterinarian was giddy. I could see that she was not able to stand upright. As if she was drunk.

Younger chickens Should we stay a minute longer and finish what we had driven all the way into the country to do the job?

This laboratory veterinarian seemed to be suffering from an asthmatic attack although I had never encountered a real case of sneezing, itching, rhinorhea and nasal obstruction. A condition called allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the nose membranes) associated with asthma.   A chicken veterinarian allergic to chickens?  Why was she risking her life in the line of duty? 

Asthmatic people using carry an inhaler but she had none. Nobody  at the farm had any. She did use mask at her laboratory I remembered but we had none at the farm and anyway it would be ineffective now. 

I dragged her away from the danger zone immediately.  She breathed easier as we left the chicken houses and drove back to the urban dust and traffic jams of downtown.  Fortunately, she recovered within half an hour and was breathing normally.   

What about the chickens?  Well, the EDS 76 vaccine worked effectively. The non-vaccinated flock produced the egg drop to as low as 50% and the vaccinated half had the expected 80% egg production.  That meant the infected flock were producing 30 less eggs per 100 hens and if there were 100,000 hens, the loss would be 30,000 eggs.   The eggs of the infected birds were distorted in shape, had thin egg shells and the yolk was watery.  No consumer would buy them.

The vaccine eliminated the problem.  It so happened that she forgot to bring his inhaler on this farm visit and therefore suffered the distress in breathing in public.     


1.  Straits Times, October 4, 2001. "Teachers dealing with asthmatic kids"

Asthma is a condition in which the small airways (bronchioles) in the lungs become swollen and narrowed, reducing air flow and resulting in a person having difficulty in breathing.
A study funded by the Asthma Association involving 600 teachers from 8 primary and 6 secondary schools and conducted by the Children's Medical Institute at the National University Hospital shows that:

9/10 teachers have at least one student with asthma in their classes.
1/4 teachers has at least 4 asthmatic students in his class. Asthma is the second-most common reason for children being admitted to hospital after accidents and injuries.   In 2000, 3426 asthmatic children were hospitalised compared to 3872 children admitted for accidents and injuries.  "Exercise is good for the chld as a healthy child is less vulnerable to other forms of infections which may trigger asthma attacks," said Dr Anne Goh, a Kandang Kerbau Hospital consultant in paediatric respiratory medicine.  Each year, the Asthma Association supports about 20 needy children who have asthma.

2.  Many asthmatic people especially children think that the inhaler will be a burden and therefore do not carry it along personally.  Asthma can be fatal to anyone affected. The medication in the inhaler does save your life by opening up the airways for you to breathe when you suffer a respiratory closure of your air ways. A face mask may be needed for the  the vet who works with chickens.  Preventive medication must be taken regularly but are usually not done, resulting in deaths even in adults.    

3.  People who are allergic to animals like dogs, usually get a running nose and teary eyes when they go near the animals and recover when they go away from them. Wear a mask if yo have to.  Do consult your human doctor and take sensible precautions.


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   Last updated: 06 Oct 2001


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