European Farmers Worried About Potentially Catastrophic Virus

European farmers are facing a potential financial catastrophe thanks to the sudden appearance of a new orthobunyavirus, an illness spread by midges and flies, which affects livestock.

The virus’ first cases were seen last August. The newness of the disease is such that it has no official scientific name. Instead, the virus is referred to by the name of the German town where it first appeared, Schmallenberg. Since it was first observed last August, the virus has been detected on about 1,000 farms in Europe and 74 in the United Kingdom.

The current crisis affects lambs and has lamb farmers across the continent worried. The symptoms of the disease manifest in two ways. Occasionally, infected animals will experience fever, diarrhea, and spontaneous abortion. The more obvious symptoms, however, are congenital deformities and malformations in newborn animals. In many cases, the mother will present with no symptoms until birth.

The major malformations observed have been scoliosis, hydrocephalus, arthrogryposis, hypoplasia of the cerebellum, and enlarged thalamus. These malformations result in animals being stillborn or being so malformed (many farmers have reported fused limbs, deformed jaws, and malfunctioning joints) that they are unable to feed.

The potential impact of the disease is still unknown. Many British farmers have reported significant losses, with some losing between 10 to 20 percent of their lambs. Many are also worried that, since lambing season has only just started, losses could get much worse as the year progresses.

Health and agriculture officials are hoping to prevent widespread panic. So far, they report, the illness does not appear to be transmissible to humans. It’s also unclear whether the illness will remain a fixture in Europe and the UK. With infected ewes becoming immune after giving birth, and given the fact that short-lived midges spread the disease, the illness could become a rare fluke rather than a permanent worry.

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Written by: Justin Ellison / Farm Plus Staff Writer