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Cattle imported despite warnings over Bluetongue disease

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Unlike foot-and-mouth bluetongue disease does not spread from animal to animal but is instead transmitted by midges

Unlike foot-and-mouth bluetongue disease does not spread from animal to animal but is instead transmitted by midges

Unlike foot-and-mouth bluetongue disease does not spread from animal to animal but is instead transmitted by midges

Over 70 cattle were imported from Germany and Holland at the weekend — despite warnings that they could carry a deadly livestock disease to our shores.

Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew was critical last night of the farmers who had put local herds at risk by importing cattle from bluetongue-affected areas in continental Europe.

“In the week that we have been showcasing the agri-food industry at the Balmoral Show, I could not believe that some farmers have shown a complete disregard for our industry by importing over 70 cattle from Germany and Holland to farms spread across the north. That, only weeks after Germany confirmed its first case of bluetongue this year,” she said.

“As we are now in the higher risk period for bluetongue it is more important than ever that we protect our bluetongue-free status. The cost to the agri-food industry of a bluetongue outbreak could be as much as £25m per year, and that is a cost to industry, not government.”

The animals imported over the weekend came in two separate batches — 34 cattle from Holland went to seven different farms in Newry and Omagh, while a further batch of 41 cattle from Germany went to four farms in the Ballymena, Coleraine and Omagh areas.

Bluetongue virus mainly affects sheep but can infect cattle, goats, deer and other ruminants. Symptoms include swelling of the head and the neck, lameness, internal bleeding and ulcers of the mouth, nose and eyes.

Bluetongue background

Why is the disease called bluetongue?

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It is caused by a deadly virus spread by midges that mainly affects sheep, but can also infect cattle, goats, deer and other ruminants. Symptoms include swelling of the head and the neck, lameness, internal bleeding, and ulcers of the mouth, nose and eyes. The tongue may turn blue under pressure created by the swelling, giving the disease its name. The virus has infected nearly 3,000 animals in northern Europe since July, where the death rate has been about 30 per cent. Unlike foot-and-mouth, it does not spread from animal to animal but is instead transmitted by midges, which bite an infected animal and then transfer the virus to an uninfected one.



Is it as bad as foot-and-mouth?



It depends how you look at it. It is worse for sheep, killing up to 70 per cent of flocks and causing a painful, lingering death. Infection in cows is often symptomless but can still lead to spread of the disease. There is no risk to humans. Although it is more lethal than foot-and-mouth it is not contagious and does not spread from animal to animal. Instead of sweeping through farms, destroying herds and flocks, bluetongue spreads more slowly, but there is no reliable way of containing it. Culling of animals is useless against a disease spread by insects and is not normally carried out, except for welfare reasons. Infected animals can recover, and there is no reason why their meat should not be eaten. But milk yields can drop by 40 per cent and some animals suffer muscle wastage and may not be accepted by abattoirs for introduction to the food chain. Meat from infected animals would be banned from export.



Where has the disease come from?



There have been a series of outbreaks of bluetongue in the Netherlands, Belgium, western Germany and northern France since August 2006. The virus originated in southern Africa, where it is spread by a different species of midge. Global warming has been blamed for its spread north to the Mediterranean and southern Europe and then to northern Europe.



What can be done to control the disease?



Mass slaughter to eradicate it is not an option as that will not eliminate the midges. The only control measures available to farmers are to spray insect breeding sites such as manure heaps with insecticide, and douse livestock with insect repellent to reduce the number of midge bites. But these measures would at best reduce the level of infection rather than eliminate it.

Keeping animals in sheds at dawn and dusk, when the midges are out in force, has not been shown to be effective, according to Defra. The only other defence is vaccination. But there are currently no effective vaccines against bluetongue in Europe. Vaccines developed for use in sheep in South Africa, where the disease originated, cause severe side effects in European breeds.

European versions of the vaccine have made the problem worse because the live virus used in the vaccine has combined with the circulating virus to create new strains.


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