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Virus warning for farmers

A vet carries out a post mortem on a lamb with the Schmallenberg virus.

Farmers in Northern Ireland are being told to be extra vigilant for signs of a little understood Schmallenberg virus that causes birth defects and miscarriages in livestock.

Monday, 27 February 2012
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The warning to the agriculture sector comes as the virus has been found in the south east of England.

The disease has been diagnosed in five cases in cattle and 69 cases in sheep in England.

Farmers in Northern Ireland are not legally obliged to report if their livestock has the disease and, so far, no cases have been reported.

The call for vigilance comes from the Department of Agriculture, as well as a group of farming organisations - including the Ulster Farmers' Union, the Association of Veterinary Surgeons Practicing in Northern Ireland, the National Beef Association, the National Sheep Association, the Northern Ireland Veterinary Association and Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association.

Little is known about the disease, including the geographic distribution, transmissibility of infected animals and the virus origin.

At present, there are no validated antibody tests available to demonstrate exposure to the virus and no vaccine is likely to be available in the immediate future.

It is thought the virus is spread by midges and clinical signs include fever, reduced milk yield, loss of body condition, and in some cases diarrhoea.

Currently risk areas include Belgium, Holland, Germany, France and the South East of England.

At this stage the disease is not fully understood and it is not notifiable so the Department of Agriculture are not able to put in place import restrictions and there are no control measures in place in any of the affected countries in the EU.

The top priority is to keep Northern Ireland's livestock population free of SBV and the group is appealing to all farmers to be extremely cautious when considering importing animals from the risk areas.

In a statement, the Department of Agriculture stressed the importance of farmers acting responsibly.

"The Department has an enhanced surveillance programme in place to detect the Schmallenberg virus in affected animals," a statement said.

"Information has been provided to farmers and their vets to enable them to recognise the clinical signs which might give rise to suspicion of the disease and AFBI has developed the capacity to check any potential suspects.

"We are carrying out targeted surveillance and encourage farmers to report any stillbirth, malformation or nervous disease in new born animals or foetuses to their PVP.

"The veterinary assessment is that the main threat is from animals from affected areas and the Department would therefore encourage farmers to source stock responsibly."