John Griffiths, Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development
As we progress through the lambing season this year, it is timely to provide an update on the situation with Schmallenberg virus (SBV).
What is SBV?
SBV affects sheep, cattle and goats and is widely distributed in Northern and Western Europe, including England and Wales. It can cause brief mild/moderate disease in adult cattle and late abortion or birth defects in newborn cattle, sheep and goats. Affected offspring can have twisted limbs and spine, and abnormal brain development. This disease is carried by midges and can spread over large areas relatively quickly.
Clinical signs in adult livestock are short-lived and the disease is relatively mild. There is good immunity after infection and it is thought that significant consequences occur only if animals are infected in early pregnancy. There is no evidence that the disease will transmit to humans.
Schmallenberg is not a notifiable disease so there are no legal reporting requirements or restrictions in place. It is not notifiable because the burden it would place on farmers, in terms of restrictions, and tax payers is not proportionate to the benefits that would be gained.
During the summer of 2012 Government undertook a package of surveillance testing to determine the geographical spread of SBV. Government is also funding research in the UK, and is collaborating with EU wide programmes to obtain a better picture of how this new virus works and spreads, which will be shared with industry in due course.
We are working closely with the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), Defra and stakeholders, via the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy Steering Group, to monitor the disease and to keep Welsh farmers informed. We have kept stakeholders informed of developments with the disease and provided information, through stakeholder meetings, messages and the website.
The Welsh Government will continue to work closely with AHVLA, stakeholders and other administrations to monitor the disease and to provide consistent information and advice as it becomes available.
Surveillance during 2012 found evidence that SBV had spread across most of England and Wales. Midge activity peaks around late summer/early autumn, which coincides with seasonal sheep breeding. As sheep pregnancy lasts 5 months the results of infection at this critical time are seen in the following spring. We have, during December and January, seen the first clinical cases of SBV in deformed lambs in Wales, 21 as at 11 January. It is likely that more deformed lambs and calves will be born in Wales this year as a result of infection of sheep and cows in 2012.
Impact of SBV
The impact of the disease will depend on when animals were infected in relation to the stage of pregnancy. Evidence from AHVLA suggests that an average of 2 – 5% of animals have given birth to deformed young within infected flocks. It is possible that this may be higher in some cases. There are also other factors which can cause lambing losses such as poor nutrition due to adverse weather in 2012.
Advice to farmers
I appreciate that SBV is of significant concern to farmers at this time of year in particular. We are advising farmers to look for signs of the virus. Deformities in newborns (caused by SBV or other factors) may increase birth complications and result in welfare problems which may require veterinary assistance. Livestock keepers should remain alert to this possibility and seek veterinary advice. We have published guidance for farmers and vets on possible measures to reduce the risk of infection before or during early pregnancy.
There is currently no effective treatment for SBV in animals and midge control is very difficult. There is no vaccine for SBV at present, although we understand a number of companies are working on one and an application has been made for marketing authorisation. Once a vaccine is available, farmers should discuss its use with their vets.
We will keep this issue under constant review and will provide further updates as the situation progresses.