By Liz Turner
The Schmallenberg virus, which causes deformities and stillbirths in newborn lambs and calves, is likely to spread rapidly across England into Wales and Scotland, scientists have warned.
The virus is spread by midges, and at a press briefing in London, Professor Peter Mertens of the Institute for Animal Health said given the right temperature and wind direction, “I see no reason why it couldn’t spread to most of the country this year.”
Some scientists believe that climate change has played a part in the emergence of this virus. The first diseases carried by the Culicoides midges were detected around the Mediterranean region in the 1920s, but reached Italy in 1998.
The diease bluetongue was first detected in northern Europe in 2006 and Schmallenberg, named after the German town where it was isolated, in December 2011. This latest virus is related to a number that infect cattle in Africa, Asia and Australia, but similar insect-borne diseases have not been found before in northern Europe.
Schmallenberg reached south east England early this year, and 276 farms have been affected.
Adult animals suffer only minor symptoms, but if pregnant cows or ewes are infected, the foetus can be seriously deformed. It is believed that the virus is not a risk to human health, and affected animals will not enter the food chain, but the effects are distressing for farmers, who receive no compensation.
Scientists hope that ewes and cows that contract Schmallenberg will develop immunity, meaning that further exposure will have no impact on their calves or lambs in future.
A vaccine is being developed and veterinary experts are hopeful it will be available by next year. The UK was able to vaccinate susceptible animals against bluetongue in early 2008 before the insects that carried it re-emerged after the winter. As a result there were no more infections in the UK.
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