In summer 2001, Usutu virus (USUV), a mosquito-borne flavivirus, was isolated for the first time in Europe during a mortality incident among Eurasian blackbirds (Turdus merula) in Austria. Chickens are frequently used as sentinel animals for arbovirus surveillance systems. In the present study, the pathogenicity of USUV for specific pathogen free chickens was investigated. Ten 2-week-old chickens were inoculated intravenously with 0.1 ml inoculum containing 103 median (50%) tissue culture infectious dose of USUV strain Vienna 2001-blackbird (939/01). Clinical signs, viraemia, gross and microscopic lesions, contact transmission and immunological response were evaluated. No clinical signs were observed in the USUV-inoculated animals during the experimental period. Pathological examination showed moderate splenomegaly and follicular infiltrates in the liver of several inoculated animals. Mild non-suppurative encephalitis was observed in the brain tissue of one virus-inoculated chicken examined 7 days post inoculation (d.p.i.). USUV nucleic acid was detected by reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction in the organs of six inoculated chickens, although immunohistochemistry for flavivirus antigen was negative in all tissues from all chickens. Virus shedding was shown in three inoculated birds by detecting USUV RNA in cloacal swabs of two chickens at 5 d.p.i., and in the cloacal and pharyngeal swabs of one chicken at 7 d.p.i. Based on detection of viral RNA in peripheral blood mononuclear cells, viraemia was detected only in two chickens (at 7 d.p.i.). Only one of the inoculated chickens developed an antibody response. There was no evidence of virus transmission to chickens kept in contact with inoculated birds. No USUV was isolated from in-contact birds and all in-contact and control animals lacked USUV-specific antibodies. The present data suggest that domestic chickens are not at risk of developing clinical disease following USUV infection and that chickens are unlikely to be useful for sentinel purposes in USUV surveillance programmes.
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