Marek's Disease

Marek's disease


Marek’s disease is a viral tumor-causing disease of chickens and is caused by 6 different herpes viruses that primarily affect young birds. There are 4 different forms of Marek’s:

  • Cutaneous (skin form)

  • Visceral (internal-organ form)

  • Neural (nerve form)

  • Ocular (eye form)


There are four phases of infection:

  • Degenerative changes caused by early productive-restrictive virus infection,

  • Latent infection,

  • Another phase of cytolytic infection associated with permanent immunosuppression

  • Nonproductive infected lymphoid cells that may or may not progress to lymphoma formation, a “proliferative” phase.

The route of infection is inhalation. The virus then replicates in the lungs (in non-lymphoid cells). An acute phase of the disease can be seen within 72-96 hours where the lymphoid system, primarily bursa and thymus, undergoes cytolytic changes. Infected birds normally recover from the acute phase of the infection after 6-7 days and become latent. Infected lymphocytes carry the virus throughout the body, causing cell-associated viremia. Eventually, virus will be shed in the environment via feather debris and dander after the secondary cytolytic infection occurs in the feather follicle epithelium (~2 weeks post infection)


The signs and symptoms of Marek’s Disease vary depending on the form of disease present:

Cutaneous form: Enlarged reddened feather follicles and white bumps on the skin that form brown crusty scabs.

Visceral Form: Tumors on internal organs including heart, ovary, liver and lung.

Neural form: Characterized by one, all, or none of the following symptoms -

  • Progressive paralysis, usually of the leg or wing, a typical leg-paralysis victim will have one leg extended forward and one leg extended back. A swelling of the sciatic nerve is the cause.

  • Weight loss

  • Labored breathing

  • Diarrhea

  • Starvation and death due to an inability to reach feed and water and to trampling by penmates.


Ocular form:

  • Gray eye color

  • Misshapen iris

  • Weight loss

  • Blindness

  • Death


  • Morbidity (number affected) in unvaccinated flocks can reach 60 percent. Vaccinated flocks fare better with less than 5 percent affected. Mortality is high in affected birds reaching nearly 100 percent over a 10-week period.

  • Increased feed cost

  • Less weight gain

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