BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Vaccination is the best way to fight the specific strain of bluetongue virus rampaging through cattle and sheep in northern EU countries and vast amounts of vaccine may well be needed, the EU executive said on Monday.
But the problem for farmers is that the particular strain of the virus that has occurred in the northern EU -- serotype 8, one of 24 recognized -- is one for which no vaccine is yet available.
Britain, whose farmers are also struggling with outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, was the latest European Union country to be hit with the viral sickness when laboratory tests detected bluetongue in a cow in eastern England last weekend.
Spread by midges, bluetongue has moved with alarming speed this year across Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and now Britain. In the past, it tended to occur only in warmer, more southerly countries like Spain and Italy.
In 2007, more than 12,000 cases of bluetongue have been reported in central-northern countries of the European Union.
Two companies are now developing a vaccine for serotype 8, likely to be available in early 2008. Officials at the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, say considerable amounts may be needed to meet demand from farmers in several EU countries.
“There is, or will be, considerable demand for this vaccine,” one official said. “We will do all we can to speed up its approval ... it’s preventive vaccination so you’d have to do it on quite a wide scale to be effective.”
Bluetongue does not affect humans and there is no risk of contracting the disease by consuming milk or meat from infected animals. It can spread extremely rapidly since the midges can be easily propelled through the air by strong winds.
The virus is characterized by inflammation of the mucous membranes, congestion, swelling and hemorrhages.
Sheep are often the worst affected animals, suffering from breathing problems, lameness, drooling and high body temperatures. In some cases, the animal’s tongue turns blue.
The best way to fight the virus, farming experts say, is by vaccination, since slaughtering infected animals does not make sense while midges are responsible for transmitting bluetongue.
Cattle can carry the disease but often do not show symptoms for months afterwards: a “silent source” of infection.
“We consider that vaccination is an important instrument to fight this disease. It isn’t mandatory but we would look favorably on any (EU-27) member state request to apply vaccination,” the Commission official said.
Costs of the vaccine itself would be met by EU funding while the Commission would pay half the expenses incurred by farmers who chose to vaccinate their herds or flocks, he said.
“It (vaccination) is the only effective instrument we have to tackle the disease...and it’s already used in Portugal, Spain and Italy where they’ve had bluetongue, albeit a different strain, for some years,” he said.
If an outbreak is confirmed, a 150 kilometer restriction zone is imposed on livestock within the affected area subject to further testing.
Additional reporting by Nigel Hunt in London
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