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No, sleeping with a chicken probably won’t save you from Zika or malaria

chickenJournalists sure had fun reporting on a study that purportedly showed that live chickens — or chicken feathers to be exact —  act as a deterrent to virus-carrying mosquitoes.

The headlines last week advising people to sleep near a chicken to ward off malaria- and Zika-carrying mosquitoes were playful, weird and funny. They also showed how reporters still fall for gimmickry, this time served up by BioMed Central, an open access journal publisher.

BioMed distributed a news release headlined, “To protect yourself from malaria sleep with a chicken next to your bed.”

The news release begat hundreds of news stories. Here’s just a sampling:

No crime, no fowl?

It’s cool for journalists to want to make their stories entertaining. And in this case, the fall-out shouldn’t be too bad. It’s doubtful many people will rush out to buy chickens to use as mosquito repellent. But it’s even more cool to make news articles informative.

So in addition the “sleeping with a cock” jokes, perhaps these stories could have provided some actual evidence-based recommendations for travelers who wish to avoid these mosquito-borne diseases. For example the World Health Organization says that prevention of mosquito bites between dusk and dawn is the first line of defense against malaria. “Measures to prevent mosquito bites include sleeping under long-lasting insecticidal nets, and using protective clothing and insect repellents. Depending on the malaria risk in the area to be visited, international travellers may also need to take preventive medication (chemoprophylaxis) prior to, during, and upon return from their travel.”

NPR’s story included a comment from an outside source who thought the study was “pretty cool.” But I didn’t see any hint of skepticism about the findings from NPR or any other outlet, so I went out in search of it on my own.

Steven Miles, MD, who knows a thing or two about mosquitoes having served as chief medical officer for a refugee camp in Southeast Asia, had an alternate explanation for the findings. After reading the study, he wrote the results might reflect “nothing more than operant conditioning. Skinner style.”

He explained that according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Biology, mosquitoes can be taught to “associate an odorant conditioned stimulus (CS) with a blood-reinforced thermal stimulus (unconditioned stimulus; US).”

In other words, they can be conditioned to learn that certain smells are (or aren’t) associated with certain hosts that they can feed on.

What’s that got to do with chicken feathers?

Miles suggests that the study may show us that “Mosquitoes find feathers hard to get through, and so they learn that when they smell feathers, it’s time to seek other hosts. If this were true, they would learn quickly that humans with chickens in their rooms had good food and would go and feast away.”

Though that scenario may sound far-fetched, remember that we don’t have anything approaching certainty regarding the effectiveness of chickens as a mosquito repellent. And given the preliminary state of the evidence, journalists are encouraged and obligated to report on obstacles that might prevent wider adoption of this early research.

The big takeaway from this is that one source usually gives you just one perspective on the research. Especially where chickens are concerned, you’ve got to cross that proverbial road in order to get to the other side of the story.

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