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Headlines Published on 11 September 2006

Title Bluetongue moves north

With such epidemics as mad cow, foot-and-mouth disease and highly pathogenic avian influenza still fresh in the collective memory, northern European farmers have another potentially devastating livestock virus on their hands. Cases of the disease known as bluetongue have recently been detected in three different countries. Bluetongue has been known to exist in certain southern regions of Europe, namely Spain, France and Italy. This is the first time that there has been a documented case north of the 50th parallel, which runs through northern France, Luxembourg and Prague.

Bluetongue is particularly dangerous for sheep herds. ©
Bluetongue is particularly dangerous for sheep herds
Bluetongue cases were first confirmed on a farm in the southernmost region of the Netherlands, and then also detected across the borders in Belgium, Germany and later France. Positive cases of the insect borne virus were found in sheep in the Liège province of Belgium and in cattle in the Aachen area of North Rhine Westphalia in Germany. The bluetongue virus is a non-contagious, insect-transmitted, disease found in ruminants, mainly sheep but also in cattle, goats and deer. It is transmitted by the bite of a certain type of midge. The disease is not directly transmissible from animal to animal. It is not known to be transmitted to humans.

Even though cases of bluetongue are catalogued from time to time in southern Europe, the virus strain detected recently in the north has been previously unknown in Europe. The Community Reference Laboratory located in Pirbright, UK, which specialises in research on farm animal diseases and was involved in the recent foot-and-mouth epidemic, identified the serotype responsible of the current outbreak as serotype 8. Early tests suggest it is similar to the serotype 8 found in sub-Saharan Africa. How it came to infect animals in northern Europe is under investigation. As in other emerging diseases, possible explanations for how the virus arrived in northern Europe include “globalisation, the change in weather patterns and the increase in speed and volume of international transport as well as passengers,” the World organisation for animal health (OIE) says.

DG RESEARCH is currently involved in several bluetongue related projects under FP5 and FP6. This research has allowed important advances in the knowledge of the disease and its vector and has greatly improved the disease control tools. Future FP7 projects will continue to support research on the major diseases of livestock.

More information:

  • EU agriculture research site
  • DG Health fact sheet

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