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Disease warning as new strain of Bluetongue threatens to sweep UK | Tech News

Friesian Cows in a field

A virus that affects cows and other farm animals is on the rise (Picture: Getty)

A new strain of bluetongue virus appears set to sweep the UK as midges blown over from Europe infect farm animals, experts warn.

The disease has a devastating impact on livestock, adding to an already difficult year for farmers following record rainfall.

Government officials have said there is a ‘very high probability’ the disease will spread, with 126 cases in cattle and sheep already seen in England. 

The virus does not infect people and is not a risk to food safety. 

However, it can be fatal in farm animals and leads to around 30% of a sheep herd being lost. Although the mortality rate is lower in cattle, it can cause a reduction in milk production. Typical symptoms include ulcers on the tongue, mouth or nose, difficulty swallowing, a fever and lameness, affecting animal welfare.

In some cases a lack of oxygen to the tongue turns it blue, hence the name.

Which animals does bluetongue infect?

Bluetongue can affect:

Other ruminants such as deer and goats
Camelids such as llamas and alpacas

There is currently no vaccine approved for use in the UK against the new strain, known as BTV-3. Last week the Netherlands gave emergency approval to one jab in a bid to combat the virus, which has infected more than 6,000 animals.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told the BBC that any UK vaccine would need to go through full market authorisation before it was available.

Bluetongue is a notifiable disease, meaning any farm infected must log the infection with Defra.

Sheep in a field

The virus has a 30% fatality rate in sheep (Picture: Getty/500px)

Kent farmer Roger Dunn was forced to cull six of his cattle to stop the spread of the disease to more of the herd and his sheep.

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‘When you could be losing 30 to 40% of your business, it is a big worry,’ he told the BBC. 

‘These are all pedigree Sussex cattle so that is years and years of breeding. You could lose a lot of bloodlines through it. You could lose your whole herd through it if it becomes a serious outbreak so it can be quite devastating. 

‘And, with the whole problem of movement and everything else, it just becomes a nightmare.’

How is bluetongue spread?

The virus is spread by midges, small biting insects. When a midge bites an infected animal, it ingests blood carrying the virus. When the temperature reaches around 12 to 15C, the virus begins to replicate inside the midge. When the insect bites another animal, the virus passes back into the blood and infects it.

Disease control zones can be put in place following outbreaks, restricting movement of animals from the area.

While not currently in a control zone, Mr Dunn added that some buyers were ‘very hesitant’ to buy stock from him.

Alpaca pair

The virus also affects alpacas (Picture: Getty)

David Barton, chair of the National Farmers Union, said that while farmers were anxious to protect their livestock, questions remained over the vaccine.

‘As this is a very new vaccine, there are still questions to be answered – not least about the cost of the vaccine, how it will be rolled out, and what support the government can offer to get it deployed quickly and efficiently,’ he told the BBC.

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