New Virus Spreading Through Europe's Livestock

Stillbirths and deformities increase as animals infected with the Schmallenberg virus last summer or fall give birth to infected offspringDEFRA, UK/Public Domain

Schmallenberg virus owes its name to a town in Germany where the first animals born dead or deformed put authorities on the trail of this newly discovered livestock disease.

Since its appearance, Schmallenberg virus has spread rapidly. It has been confirmed already in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain. The disease is marked by stiffness and deformities of the extremities, frequently causing stillbirth.

Based on the genetic identification of the virus and the pattern of disease, Schmallenberg virus is believed to be spread by small, biting midges -- a theory receiving confirmation from the spread into Great Britain, which follows zones where the small, biting bugs could have blown across the channel from mainland Europe.

Assessment of Risk to Humans

At this time, authorities believe the new disease poses no health threat to humans, although the loss of young animals can quickly devastate farmers. Viruses most similar to the new disease do not communicate to humans. However, a rapid risk assessment document released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control indicates that Schmallenberg virus belongs to the family of orthobunyaviruses, at least 30 of which are known to cause effects in humans, ranging from mild to severe.

What Can Be Done?

Authorities are working to have the disease added quickly to laws requiring reporting of any appearance of the disease. All eyes are on European austerity measures, as researchers fear losing funding that supports early detection and tracking of agricultural disease.

Work has begun on a vaccine, but there is little hope of such a solution before Europe's freeze fades and insect season returns to infect a whole new lot of potential carriers. Stepped up sampling will help make the extent of the spread visible before the next round of offspring demonstrates the disease's effects.

New Virus Spreading Through Europe's Livestock
As the spring lambing season starts, the extent of animals infected last summer and fall becomes apparent.

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