New Schmallenberg virus causing concern in Europe

Mar 2, 2012

The newly-discovered Schmallenberg virus has spread to southern England. So far, 83 farms in the United Kingdom (UK) have documented infected animals, as well as many farms in Germany, France and the Netherlands. Of the confirmed English cases, most have involved sheep herds, but some infected dairy cattle have been noted as well.

The new virus—named for the small German town where it was first observed— was discovered in August 2011 when a stillborn lamb with horrible deformities was sent to researchers for investigation. The virus was named in late November when it was identified as new and the cause of the lamb’s deformities and death.

The virus affects sheep, goats, cattle and even bison and deer. The biggest concern is for sheep and cattle given the importance the lamb/mutton and dairy industries have in infected areas. It briefly causes fever, diarrhea and decreased milk production in adult cattle and is asymptomatic in adult sheep but otherwise has no effect on adult animals.

The biggest concern with Schmallenberg is its effect on unborn animals. Stillbirths and mortal deformities in the offspring of infected females have been widely documented. Stillbirths resulting from ewes and cows aborting late in their gestation are the most common result, but extreme deformities such as fused joints or limbs, twisted spines and necks and damaged nervous systems are also signs.

One German farmer, who has already estimated he will lose half his lamb crop, added Schmallenberg lambs have an “off color” to them.

The newness of the virus makes details difficult to pin down. The virus itself is similar to a virus family seen mostly in Asia. Schmallenberg is sufficiently different from those Asian viruses to make researchers think it might have evolved or mutated from strains brought in by infected imported animals. Midges—frequently called “no-see-ums” in the U.S.— and mosquitoes are known vectors of the virus.

Researchers believe the infection spread from continental Europe to England by midges blown across the English Channel. The possibility of importation infection has not been ruled out however.

As mentioned, the virus is non-lethal in adult animals. The impact on calf and lamb crops is the biggest concern. Some English farmers are already reporting a loss of a quarter of their expected lamb crop with peak lambing season still to come. The impact on calf crops is yet to be seen as calving season hasn’t started in Europe yet.

Initial investigation suggests the virus does not affect humans. Because it is so new, however, health officials and vets are urging caution when dealing with infected animals. Farmers and vets who have come into contact with infected animals are being watched for any sign of crossspecies infection.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has issued official statements, saying it is “unlikely that this virus will cause disease in humans, but it cannot be excluded at this stage.”

Nigel Miller, president of the National Farm Union (NFU) of Scotland, has speculated on the newness of the virus’ presence in the UK. Miller said the large amount of infections—over 1,000 confirmed cases dotting the European map since the virus was named—suggests this is the second year of infections, not the first. This is a worrisome prospect as it would suggest infected vectors can survive winters.

There is no treatment for Schmallenberg at the moment because it is so new.

Projections of a possible vaccine are estimated as 18 months away at the soonest. Some sources mention farmers in origin-town Schmallenberg, Germany, feeding sheep garlic and dousing them in repellant in an attempt to keep infected midges from biting them. The effect of these homegrown protection devices has yet to be seen.

European health and agricultural officials are warning people not to panic or overreact. Several sources have pointed out the Schmallenberg virus has yet to reach even a fraction of the destruction caused by Foot and Mouth Disease or Bluetongue, both of which affected England in recent years.

Margaret Davis, DVM, with specialty in infection control at Washington State University, said the route of Schmallenberg’s transmission—infected midges and mosquitoes—would be the focal point for eventual U.S. precautionary measures if a risk to domestic ag was identified.

No one could be reached for timely comment at US- DA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regarding U.S. reactions or protocol for Schmallenberg. No official information dealing with it existed on the websites of USDA, APHIS or FDA at the time of publication. Most sources contacted by WLJ staff for interview had not heard of the virus at all.

In the European Union (EU), despite official calls for calm, many of England’s lamb export destinations have already halted live animal imports from infected counties. Scotland’s NFU has issued an official statement, recommending Scottish farmers avoid importing pregnant animals from England or at least avoid importing from infected counties.

Other countries affected by Schmallenberg are facing similar import suspensions and general wariness by uninfected countries.

Joe Schuele, communications director at the U.S. Meat Export Federation, said the fallout from Schmallenberg in Europe is not likely to create opportunities for U.S. exports.

“The import bans that have been enacted so far affect live animals, so the meat trade hasn’t changed. If it is extended to meat, especially beef, that could create some opportunities [for U.S. beef export to Europe].”

Schuele said the largest potential opportunity—Russian beef imports—is contingent on particular, though unlikely, events. Russia is a primary consumer of meat from the EU and has placed import bans on live animals from affected EU countries. If Russia extended its bans to meat, the opportunity for the U.S. to grab a larger market share is possible.

“If a large market like Russia were to cut off beef from the EU, that would shake up the beef market,” said Schuele However, Schuele mentioned existing trade issues with Russia would likely hamper that situation even if it were to arise.

Though the U.S. does export lamb, and even saw record lamb exports in both volume and value last year, U.S. lamb destinations are limited to Canada, Mexico, some of the Caribbean islands and select Middle Eastern markets. The likelihood of export opportunities for U.S. lamb opening up in Europe as a result of Schmallenberg is thereby small to nonexistent. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

March 28, 2012

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