A new and deadly virus has hit the UK causing birth defects and miscarriages in sheep across England. The Schmallenberg virus has now been reported on 83 farms in England with the National Farmers' Union urging farmers who suspect infection on their properties to alert authorities immediately.
The virus, believed to have originated in Europe and supposedly spread via biting midges, can cause miscarriages and birth defects in sheep, goats and cattle with a number of stillborns being reported. With lambing season at its peak in March and April the numbers of reported cases are sure to increase significantly, posing a serious threat to the agricultural industry.
With little known about the virus it is difficult to predict the impact on farms across the UK. Furthermore, as no compensation is currently in place for farmers whose livestock suffer from the disease it is certain that many individuals will see huge financial losses this year. Chief executive of the National Sheep Association, Phil Stocker, confirmed the impact that severe declines in the sheep industry will directly affect consumers with the price of lamb increasing in supermarkets around the country.
Little is known about the Schmallenberg virus with initial reports from Germany identifying the disease only last year. The virus is known to be a member of the Orthobunyavirus genus which is the same family that causes encephalitis in humans. No reports have been identified in humans and it is uncertain how great the risks are with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control stating that it is 'unlikely that this virus will cause disease in humans, but it cannot be excluded at this stage'.
With such severe abnormalities presented in livestock there are hopes to develop a vaccine to combat the devastating disease. However, given time constraints and legislation it is likely the development of a vaccine and its accessibility to farmers is more than a few years away. Tests for the virus have already been developed by the Friedrich Loeffler Institut in Germany however are only suitable for laboratory use. The National Famers' Union has solicited for the development of a more accessible test for farmers and one which may not necessarily require laboratory assessment. Furthermore, the UK Institute for Animal Health has joined forces with the Met Office to produce a map of the virus, with particular focus on midges. This evidence has the potential to provide extensive information on the insects and hopes to rapidly develop an eradication and prevention programme should midges be confirmed as vectors for the deadly disease.
With Spring fast approaching and the lambing season about to commence, the severity of the disease is likely to become far more shocking for the agricultural industry in the coming weeks. Furthermore, warmer temperatures are only likely to increase the number of midges present in the UK with concerns of a greater incidence of infection which will ultimately result in further losses next year.
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