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Schmallenberg virus continues to spread: Almost 300 farms in Germany affected
The spread of the until recently unknown Schmallenberg virus in cattle and sheep herds across Germany has increased significantly in recent months. Almost 300 companies are now affected. The lambs or calves of the infected animals are often born with severe deformities and are unable to survive.
The number of reported serious malformations and stillbirths in sheep and cattle has increased significantly in the course of the spread of the enigmatic animal disease in the past six months. Initially, animals in North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony were primarily affected, but now the Schmallenberg virus has also increased in other federal states and has recently been detected in Hamburg for the first time. The Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut (FLI) has examined numerous samples as a federal research institute for animal health and has so far detected the new virus in over 280 companies.
Malformations and stillbirths due to the Schmallenberg virus According to the FLI on the Baltic island of Riems, the occurrence of the mysterious new animal disease was first observed in cattle in Germany in November last year. At that time, the experts at the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut identified a virus that was attributed to the genus Orthobunyaviruses and was named the “Schmallenberg virus” after it was found for the first time. Orthobunya viruses are relatively widespread in cattle on other continents such as Australia or Africa, although the course of the disease itself is usually relatively mild. However, an infection of pregnant animals threatens significant health problems for their offspring. For example, embryonic developmental disorders, premature births and impaired fertility can occur in the offspring. Until recently, infections with such viruses were largely unknown in Germany, but since summer 2011, cattle with the corresponding symptoms have been increasingly observed in North Rhine-Westphalia and then in Lower Saxony.
Current infections just the tip of the iceberg? Initially, given the symptoms such as fever (over 40 degrees Celsius), reduced general well-being, loss of appetite and a decrease in milk production by up to 50 percent, the responsible veterinarians and authorities initially thought that bluetongue would spread. Most of the symptoms subsided after a few days, so that no further health impairments were to be expected at first. In the following months, however, the number of serious deformities and stillbirths in sheep and cattle rose significantly, which is due to the long-term effects of the Schmallenberg virus. According to the researchers, the viruses are transmitted by mosquitoes and midges (beard mosquitoes). FLI spokeswoman Elke Reinking explained that the dams, which are currently giving birth to lambs and calves, were probably infected in summer and autumn 2011. Accordingly, the current evidence of the virus in sheep and cattle herds could possibly only be the tip of the iceberg.
Search for a vaccine against the Schmallenberg virus After the spread of the Schmallenberg virus has increased rapidly in recent months, the introduction of a reporting obligation for the infectious disease is currently being prepared at the federal level. According to the leading veterinarian in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Karin Schwabenbauer, "this is necessary so that the veterinary authorities can get a comprehensive overview of the disease and take control measures." According to the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute, the agency is currently working intensively on the Development of a vaccine against the Schmallenberg virus. According to the Hamburg Minister of Agriculture Till Backhaus (SPD), this is not to be expected for the time being. "I do not want to raise too high hopes for a quick solution in 2012," said Backhaus in the course of his statement on the current evidence of the Schmallenberg virus in Hamburg.
The spread of the novel virus is not only concentrated in Germany, but has also affected England, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. For fear of importing the pathogens, Russia and Mexico have already imposed a ban on the import of pregnant sheep and cattle, as well as on bovine seeds and embryos from Germany. According to the experts, there is no risk of infection from humans due to the novel pathogens, however no conclusive assessment of the possible health risks of the Schmallenberg virus has been made to date. (fp)
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