Government confirms 'outbreak' of bluetongue

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The Independent Online

Britain's farmers were dealt a devastating blow yesterday when the Government's most senior vets officially confirmed that the often lethal disease bluetongue was now circulating in the country for the first time.

The virus cost farmers "tens of millions of pounds" but officials said yesterday the industry would get no compensation. Sheep farmers could be hardest hit as flocks of sheep are more susceptible to the extreme symptoms while cattle survive as bearers of the midge-borne disease.

The news comes as a double blow to farmers who are already suffering losses as a result of restrictions to combat foot-and-mouth disease which has been limited to Surrey near the Pirbright labs from where it escaped. Farmers' leaders have warned that some farmers were facing ruin, and the prospect of movement bans because of both diseases was "horrific".

The Government declared an official outbreak of bluetongue in East Anglia after tests showed infected cows were being bitten by native midges and the infection was circulating. A control zone is being established along the east coast, where the disease arrived, and a 150 km protection zone will be thrown around the Ipswich area.

"Our objective is to contain the disease in that part of the country where we have had these declared cases,'' said Fred Landeg, deputy chief veterinary officer. Officials are pessimistic about the chances of stopping its spread. Dr Landeg said: "There was a hope that this disease would die out but given what we know now, it is very likely that in November and December we will see significant numbers of new cases in this area. I hope there will not be large numbers but that must be a real possibility?''

He added: "I suspect that the control measures will be in place for a long time."

There were five confirmed cases by Thursday but after more tests yesterday Dr Landeg said there were now so many cases being confirmed in Suffolk that numbers were no longer going to be announced on a daily basis and infected animals would not be culled. He said culling would no longer stop the disease from spreading, and there was no chance of introducing a vaccine until next year. Symptoms include gross swelling of joints and difficulty breathing, which can cause the tongue to go blue.

The disease is not harmful to humans and Dr Landeg said meat from infected cattle and sheep, and milk, would be allowed into the human food chain. But the law prevents animals that are clearly sick from being sent to slaughter, and the cost of the losses must be borne by the farmers.

Regulations will ban the movement of animals including goats and llamas outside the bluetongue control zone, and live exports are being banned, but meat exports will continue.

The disease, which originated in Africa, spread across Europe in 2006 and there was a hope that it would be killed by the winter cold. But Dr Landeg said it returned in July this year in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, crossing the Channel on 4 August on an easterly breeze. More than 9,000 animals have died on the Continent and farmers are braced for similar losses in Britain.

It comes as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, prepares to lift a ban next Thursday on livestock markets in areas of England not affected by foot-and-mouth in the Home Counties and bluetongue in East Anglia.