Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Schmallenberg Virus - a New Threat to Our Sheep

A few weeks ago I heard on the grapevine there was a new disease affecting sheep and cattle in Holland and Belgium. Then I saw a news item on TV, the virus had reached East Sussex. Time to investigate. 

The disease has been named Schmallenberg Virus or SBV. The effects of SBV were first noticed in Germany in the summer of 2011 but the disease was not identified until the end of the year. In cattle the disease causes a drop in milk yield, fever, lack of appetite, loss of body condition and in some cases, diarrhoea. The cattle affected recovered after a few days. However when lambing started in the Netherlands in December, some sheep gave birth to stillborn or deformed lambs, a nasty shock for any shepherd. Schmallenberg Virus was found in the affected lambs.  

Schmallenberg Virus is thought to belong to the Bunyaviridae family, viruses in this family are usually spread by insects such as midges and mosquitoes. Scientists think the disease has arrived in the UK via midges blown across the Channel. Figures from the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) report as of 25 January 2012 there were 11 confirmed cases of SBV in the UK, all affecting sheep. There is one case here in Kent and one case over the border in East Sussex. The other 9 cases are in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. This distribution supports the idea that the disease is coming from midges blown across the Channel.

As lambing progresses, it is expected there will be more cases. The deformities include abnormal curvature of the spine, twisted neck, contracted limbs, deformed jaw and brain defects. There are some images of affected lambs on the AHVLA website, but be warned, you may find the images distressing. At present it is thought SBV is not likely to affect humans. For more information visit the Health Protection Agency website.

If you keep sheep, be on the lookout for any abnormal lambs or stillborns. Although Schmallenberg Virus is not a reportable disease as yet you can assist in the monitoring of this disease by reporting any suspect cases to your vet or local AHVLA Regional Laboratory.

Let’s hope we do not lose too many lambs to this new disease.

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