UA’s Poultry Vaccine Promising

By Ashton Eley
The Razorback Reporter

The University of Arkansas department of poultry science has developed a vaccine that will improve chicken health worldwide and potentially could save lives someday, a researcher said.

Lisa Bielke, a University of Arkansas poultry health research assistant professor, works with different chemicals and bacteria to look for new ways to increase poultry health. Ashton Eley / The Razorback Reporter

Lisa Bielke, a University of Arkansas poultry health research assistant professor, works with different chemicals and bacteria to look for new ways to increase poultry health.
Ashton Eley / The Razorback Reporter

Lisa Bielke, a poultry health research assistant professor, and her team constructed a vaccine that protects chickens from the food-borne pathogens — campylobacter and salmonella. They named it the Food Safety Vaccine.

Americans want antibiotic-free chicken and the industry is responding, but now poultry scientists must find alternate strategies — like vaccines — to keep diseases under control and keep up with the consumer demands.

Vaccines are not new, but many on the market today do not adequately protect against disease-causing bacteria like salmonella, which has more than 2,000 strains.

“Antibiotic pushback is why vaccines are taking off so much right now,” Bielke said. “A big problem with a lot of the existing vaccines is that they will only protect against one strain. We worked to create a vaccine that will protect against many of them, at least all of those that are significant to humans and poultry.”

One of the first antibiotics to come under scrutiny was Baytril, used to treat sick birds. Many, including the FDA, said the overuse of this caused an increase in treatment-resistant campylobacter and salmonella infections in humans. These infections can cause diarrhea, fever, dehydration, and death in acute cases, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To feed the growing demand for food transparency, industry giants such as Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods sell antibiotic-free labels of chicken – something that seemed unthinkable many years ago. Earlier this year, Perdue launched its first consumer advertising campaign for the organic brand Harvestland urging buyers to “eat like our ancestors.”

Treating Sick Birds

Removing or limiting antibiotics solves half the problem, but sick birds still need treatment. Salmonella remains the most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Graphic on poultry and salmonella by Ashton Eley / The Razorback Reporter

Click to enlarge.

Every year, approximately 42,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported, but the actual number of infections may be more than 30 times greater, according the CDC.

Many in the meat-production industry voluntarily work to limit antibiotics and implement alternate treatments such as the Food Safety Vaccine, some said the issue is not as simple as the public might think.

“The issue of antibiotic resistance is very complex, and it’s not black and white,” said Tom Super, the National Chicken Council vice president of communications. “When someone’s sick and goes to the doctor, they expect a prescription. People should look at themselves as the major cause of antibiotic resistance.”

Removal of antibiotics from animals’ feed and water “would lead to increased animal disease, a reduction in food safety and gain little, if anything, in the effort to control resistance,” Alexander S. Mathews, president and CEO of the Animal Health Institute said in a press release.

By 2016, chicken producers will phase out the subtherapeutic antibiotics, which are important to treating humans, Super said. However, the push to entirely remove antibiotics altogether might get scientific supported, he said.

Resistance Assessed

“Several scientific, peer-reviewed risk assessments demonstrate that resistance that is emerging in animals and transferring to humans does not happen in measurable amounts, if at all,” Super said.

Bielke said she thinks over-worried consumers primarily drive the movement, but said overall lowering antibiotic use is a beneficial and attainable task.

“The pressure to remove antibiotics is more from consumers who do not have an in depth knowledge, but I don’t think it is a bad thing,” Bielke said. “Antibiotic resistance is a naturally occurring thing. It is not going to prevent all antibiotic-resistant infections in people. It is going to happen other ways. It can reduce it.

“A lot of times the antibiotics that are put in feed is really covering up for management problems,” she said. “We don’t want people to die because someone isn’t doing their job. So removal is a good thing.”

Vaccines are helpful, but they are just one piece of a much broader plan, Super said.

“There is no one silver bullet,” he said, “but rather, a multipronged approach that includes the use of vaccines, antibiotics if needed, and a broad array of other measures employed in order to raise the healthiest chickens possible.”

Europe Ahead of U.S.

European countries are the most affected by salmonella in their flocks and food, besides the U.S., and are ahead of the States in limiting use, Bielke said.

“It has already happened in Europe and the U.S. is just 10 years or so behind,” she said. “They did have to learn to manage their flocks and herds better, but they have gotten over it and we will go through the same pains here as we remove antibiotics.”

Lisa Bielke, a University of Arkansas poultry health research assistant professor, checks on chickens that were given a food safety vaccine to protect against salmonella. Ashton Eley / The Razorback Reporter

Lisa Bielke, a University of Arkansas poultry health research assistant professor, checks on chickens that were given the Food Safety Vaccine to protect against salmonella.
Ashton Eley / The Razorback Reporter

The Food Safety Vaccine acts as prevention for companies that would otherwise have to use antibiotics therapeutically when salmonella and campylobacter-related illnesses arose in flocks.

“If a company is struggling with them they will sometimes treat it with antibiotics,” Bielke said, “but if you are trying to raise antibiotic-free birds and you give them antibiotics, suddenly you can’t market it that way and you have to do something else with the birds. So the vaccine will help with that; more so prevent it, so they won’t have to lose their antibiotic-free status.”

The vaccine is in the final stages of production before commercial use for poultry. If all goes as planned, it will be distributed primarily in Western countries next year, according the UA poultry health science department.

The Food Safety Vaccine also could benefit people directly in the future, Bielke said.

“This vaccine is not just for chickens. It is under trials at the Armed Forces Research Institute for Medical Sciences in Bangkok, undergoing some preliminary trials in mice,” Bielke said. “If those go well, then the next step will be to move to a primate model to test for human use for the vaccination.”

The UA has an arrangement with Bangkok to help with research it does not have the staff or resources to conduct, Bielke said.

The UA team members who worked on the Food Safety vaccine said they have high hopes for the future human impact it could have for humans.

“Domestically it would be great for people traveling to countries where they have to worry about foodborne diseases or even just the water,” Bielke said.

Food poisoning and contaminated water can lead to death in children who live in impoverished countries. Bielke said the vaccine has the potential for an international impact beyond just western countries.

“It is an oral vaccine that is very cheap to make and protection lasts,” she said. “The big human impact there is that we can prevent deaths in children that don’t need to die because their water is not safe.”