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Fall 1998

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 98 > Article

Survival of the Flittest
by Steven N. Koppes

A vaccine developed at UGA promises to starve a leading killer of some companion birds that millions of Americans keep as pets.

To the polyomavirus (poly-OH-ma-virus), young parrots, cockatoos, macaws and other psittacine birds amount to nothing less than a lavish dinner. "What the vaccine creates is famine," said Branson Ritchie, a UGA avian medicine professor. The vaccine essentially locks the doors to all grocery stores and restaurants, preventing the virus from spreading to another body.

Polyomavirus strikes quickly. Thirty percent of the infected young psittacines die from internal bleeding, usually within 48 hours.

"We’re vaccinating a small population of animals so far, 20,000 to 30,000 birds a year," Ritchie said. "People are just becoming aware of what the vaccine can do, but the numbers of vaccinated birds are increasing."

UGA professors Phil Lukert and Richard Davis first characterized polyomavirus in the early 1980s. The university’s Psittacine Disease Research Group, which includes Lukert and Ritchie, began developing tests for the virus in the mid-1980s and a vaccine by the early 1990s.

The vaccine reached the market in December 1995 following five years of testing and approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Available through Biomune Co. of Lenexa, Kan., the vaccine proved more than 90 percent effective in preventing the disease in laboratory and field tests. For comparison, the new chicken pox vaccine for humans will be considered a success if it is 75 percent effective.

"Dr. Lukert says the birds will tell you if the vaccine’s working, and the birds are saying it works," Ritchie said. "It’s actually performing better than our expectations."

Ritchie’s research group also has made progress against psittacine beak and feather disease. The group has developed a test for the often-fatal disease, along with two vaccines based on different strategies that are still being tested (Research Reporter, Winter 1995).

The UGA Research Foundation has licensed one of the vaccines to a manufacturer. That vaccine could go to the USDA for evaluation this summer and reach the market in two years.

For more information e-mail Branson Ritchie at britchie@calc.vet.uga.edu


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