Shows on alert as new livestock virus found

Crowds at the Great Yorkshire Show
Crowds at the Great Yorkshire Show
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SHOW organisers are holding their breath for developments in a national alert for a worrying new livestock disease which appears to have blown in from the Continent, carried by midges.

On the face of it, this makes Schmallenberg Virus (SBV) a similar threat to the Bluetongue Virus (BTV), which interfered with animal movements and the show circuit during the summers of 2007, 2008 and 2009, as a result of a few dozen actual cases in the southern half of England.

Bluetongue Virus was known and compulsorily notifiable and Schmallenberg Virus, which was only discovered a few months ago, is not yet – although the European Commission is watching it.

That means there cannot yet be any restriction on livestock movements between EU countries because of SBV. But Russia and Mexico have already clamped down on livestock and meat imports from the Netherlands, which has reported the most cases. And British authorities could impose their own internal rules if they thought it necessary.

So far, only four English cases have been confirmed – all in sheep in Norfolk, Suffolk and East Sussex.

No restrictions or culls have been imposed on the farms concerned. The cases were discovered through suspicion about stillborn or unviable lambs and the thinking is that their mothers went through the symptoms of infection unnoticed while pregnant, last August-September, when midges were still active.

That means more cases could be waiting to be discovered. Cattle and goats can also be affected, and have been on the Continent. But so far, there is no indication that animals can infect each other.

General alerts have gone out to vets and farmers. Defra’s AVHLA (animal health scientists) and Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts will pay for Schmallenberg tests where thought appropriate but farmers will be billed if they want testing for other possibilities at the same time.

Nigel Pulling, chief executive of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, said the issue had been raised at an organising meeting for the Great Yorkshire Show at the beginning of this week. He said: “Nobody is sure of the implications yet. It’s still very much a watch-this space situation.”

Paul Hooper, secretary of the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations, said: “Defra have not yet been onto us but I have been onto them, to ask about the ifs, whats and hows. We are still waiting for that information.”

The virus is named after the small German town where it was identified, last November, as a new mutation from a group of viruses originating in Africa – as Bluetongue did. The laboratory findings were rapidly passed around the European animal health network and several hundred cases have since been confirmed in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Judging by other viruses in the family, transmission to humans is unlikely. But the British Veterinary Association said this week: “It has not been ruled out and a sensible precautionary approach should be taken.”

Looking for the signs

One problem is that many SBV symptoms could have other causes. But the premature and malformed births it leads to are distinctive.

BVA president Carl Padgett said: “AHVLA (Defra vets) is now looking for reports of signs in newborn ruminants and aborted foetuses of limb or brain defects such as arthrogryposis (locked joints), jaw deformations and torticollis (twisted neck), ataxia (limb malfunction), paralysis and blindness – especially where there is a history of importation from Europe.”