Marek's disease (MD) outbreaks can occur in previously healthy adult layer or breeder flocks. However, it is not clear whether such outbreaks are caused by recent challenge with highly virulent (vv and vv+) strains of MD virus (MDV; i. e., new infection hypothesis) or by exacerbation of an earlier MDV infection (i. e., old infection hypothesis). To discriminate between these hypotheses, adult White Leghorn chickens of laboratory strains or commercial crosses with or without prior vaccination or MDV exposure were challenged at 18–102 wk of age with highly virulent MDVs, and lesion responses were measured. Horizontal transmission was studied in one trial. Challenge of adult chickens, which were free from prior MDV vaccination or exposure, with highly virulent MDV strains induced transient paralysis or tumors in 60%–100% of 29 groups (mean = 91%), and horizontal spread of virus was detected. The magnitude of the response was similar to that induced by challenge at 3 wk of age. In contrast, comparable challenge of adult chickens, which had been vaccinated or exposed to MDV early in life, induced transient paralysis or tumors in 0%–6% of 12 groups (mean = 0. 5%), although some birds showed limited virologic evidence of infection and transmission of the virus to contacts. The MD responses were influenced by the virulence of the challenge virus strain, and to a lesser extent by virus dose and route of exposure. Strong inflammatory lesions were induced in the brain and nerves of adult specific pathogen-free (SPF) chickens at 9–15 days after infection. The low susceptibility of previously vaccinated and exposed groups to challenge at ≥18 wk of age suggests that late outbreaks of MD in commercial flocks are not likely a result of recent challenge alone and that additional factors could be involved.

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