By Merritt Melancon
Like human infants, baby chicks are born without immunity to many common diseases. Immunizations are the answer, but it can be hard to immunize entire flocks of chickens in an efficient manner. That’s where poultry health specialists like Brian Jordan come in.
Jordan, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health and the Department of Poultry Science at the University of Georgia, is working to improve the vaccines available for poultry in hopes that they’ll improve the well-being of chickens and protect the health of chicken consumers.
Happy and healthy chickens grow faster and more efficiently, and that’s good for farmers’ bottom lines. But more importantly, healthy chickens carry less of a risk of passing pathogens like salmonella or E. coli down the food chain, Jordan said.
“It’s very important to think about the health of all of our chickens — meat chickens and egg-laying chickens as well — because ultimately the health status of those birds is going to translate into potential health factors for humans,” he said.
Jordan, a 2012 doctoral graduate in poultry science from the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences who holds a joint appointment at CAES and the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine, has a two-pronged focus on poultry health in his lab at the UGA Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center.
Foremost, he’s concerned with improving the way chickens are vaccinated. Over the past three decades poultry hatcheries have improved vaccination of chicks, but it’s still a difficult process.
“Our small hatcheries produce one million chicks per week,” Jordan said. “Our large hatcheries produce three million chickens per week. There’s no way that we can individually handle each chicken and vaccinate them.”
The answer is using mass-application technology. The chicks are sprayed en masse to protect them against respiratory diseases and an intestinal parasite, coccidia. The chicks eat the gel, or liquid droplets, as they clean it from their feathers, or it enters into membranes near the birds’ eyes.
“I’ve done a lot of research in this laboratory to improve this process — to try to make it more efficient and make sure all of our birds get vaccinated — and to make sure the vaccines are effective and the birds are well protected from disease,” Jordan said. “We’re constantly improving the technology so we can do the best job we can.”
In addition to immediately applicable vaccine research, Jordan is working on the genetics of poultry pathogens. Through this work, he hopes to improve vaccine formulations and make sure current vaccines are effective.
“We are currently designing a new technology for developing and creating infectious bronchitis virus vaccines,” Jordan said. “It’s moving away from the traditional method of isolating a virus from the field and going through the laboratory process to render the virus safe to use in a vaccine.”
Jordan’s lab is working on a process that would use the genetic sequence information of a known virus to create a virus that is inert and safe from the beginning. The new inert virus would then be used as the vaccine.
The lab’s research staff is also working on tests that can help identify strains of coccidia more quickly. This would help test the efficiency of the vaccines currently being used in the field.
Working to maintain the health of poultry flocks in Georgia and around the world by developing more effective vaccines and a better understanding of pathogens is critical to ensuring the safety of our food supply, Jordan said.
So while his lab’s most immediate priority is the health of the chickens they work with, Jordan’s ultimate goal is the safety of his family and all families who eat chicken and eggs.
“If we can maintain the health of our birds, especially maintaining their gut health, we can prevent much of the prevalence, distribution and growth of a lot of these bacteria,” Jordan said. “If they’re not growing in the bird, then they’re not going to contaminate any kind of meat or table eggs when they go into the food chain.”