Farmers braced for second virus crisis

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The Independent Online

Britain is braced for the spread of another devastating animal disease after the first case of the bluetongue virus was confirmed in this country, the latest blow to Britain's farmers after months of misery and hardship.

The deputy chief veterinary officer, Fred Landeg, confirmed that the strain of the virus detected in a highland cow at a rare breeds farm near Ipswich was the same BTV8 strain that has swept across Germany France and the Netherlands, causing huge losses in livestock. Farmers in Britain can only wait and hope that the infection remains an isolated case.

The disease which originated in Africa is spread by midge bites and there is currently no vaccine available. There are fears that if midges can survive, as a result of climate change, the impact of bluetongue could be even worse than the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease for Britain's farmers. The exclusion zones could be far wider, if an outbreak is confirmed in the area, to try to limit the spread of the infected midges.

Last night, to add to farmers' woes, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced a new 3km control zone around a farm at Petersfield, Hampshire, following a seventh suspected outbreak of foot-and-mouth since the crisis began on 3 August.

Farmers are desperately hoping that a cold snap will kill the midges that carry the bluetongue virus. Peter Kendall, the National Farmers' Union president, said that after floods and foot and mouth, the latest disease to hit farmers was bound to cause further hardship.

Measures which may be taken include spraying animals with repellents, keeping animals under cover, and killing midge larvae on middens. But unlike foot-and-mouth disease, there is no point in culling cows on the basis of suspicion.

The highland cow that became the first animal in Britain to contract bluetongue – has been culled and further tests were being carried out at Baylham House rare breeds farm near Ipswich to see if other animals including llamas, sheep and cattle were infected.

The Storer family, who own the farm, spoke about the emotional rollercoaster ride they have endured in the past traumatic week. They were given the all-clear for foot-and-mouth after their highland cow – a great favourite with visitors – showed symptoms, but were later told she had bluetongue.

The symptoms include swelling in joints, difficulty in breathing, and discharges from the nostrils. The virus is usually fatal in sheep but it cannot be passed to humans.

British vets have been watching the wind and weather patterns but warned ministers some weeks ago that it was likely that the virus would arrive in England from the Continent.

The Prime Minister chaired a meeting of Cobra, the Cabinet Office emergency committee, to discuss the latest possible outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease before heading to Bournemouth for the Labour Party conference.

He was told when he reached his hotel on Saturday night that the Bluetongue case had been confirmed.

The chief veterinary officer, Debby Reynolds said: "It remains important farmers maintain vigilance for this disease and report any suspect cases, particularly as clinical signs may be similar to foot-and-mouth.

The Institute for Animal Health, at Pirbright in Surrey – which was suspected as the source of the foot-and-mouth outbreak – has been working on combating bluetongue.

Outbreaks in northern Europe

* NETHERLANDS: First country in northern Europe to report a case of bluetongue (August 2006). The disease subsequently spread, with the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium hardest hit. Despite restrictions on livestock movements, there have been 1,891 outbreaks of bluetongue this year.

GERMANY: Bluetongue reached Germany in April and, by the end of August 856 outbreaks had been reported, although recent estimates have put the figure closer to 1,400. A total of 9,856 animals have tested positive for the virus, of which 2,034 died.

* BELGIUM: The entire country is considered an infected zone and 20km restrictions have been in place across the country. There have been 2,195 outbreaks of the disease this year, according to the European Commission.

* FRANCE: Restrictions on the movement of livestock have been imposed.More than 200 cases of the disease have been reported.