Sussex farms hit by new sheep virus

Four sheep farms in East Sussex, Suffolk and Norfolk have been confirmed as the first places in Britain to be affected by a virus that can cause birth defects in sheep, goats and cattle. The Schmallenburg virus, often shortened to SBV, is spread to the animals by midge bites and is not currently thought to pose any risk to humans. Consequently, farmers on the affected properties do not have to notify the authorities and the diseased animals could easily end up in shops.

Experts think that SBV, which was first identified in parts of Northern Europe last summer, travelled to the UK via infected midges. Early signs of the disease included a reduced milk yield and fever and it was only later that vets realised the virus also caused stillbirths and miscarriages as well as serious birth deformities on the affected farms.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control believe that there is little risk to human health from SBV in the food chain, but the Department for the Environment in the UK has still warned farmers to take extra precautions when working with infected or possibly infected animals.

Some countries, such as Mexico and Russia, have already banned meat imports from the Netherlands, where the early cases of SBV were found, while China has asked for more details on the possible implications of the infection before they make any decision.

Britain’s farmers, including many in the Sussex region, could end up losing billions of dollars if animals infected with SBV are found to be dangerous for human consumption and exports of British meat are banned. Many livestock owners still recall the foot-and-mouth crisis several years ago, as well as the bluetongue infection in 2007 which continues to pose a risk to UK farms.

Although farmers are not legally obliged to report any suspected cases, they are being encouraged to keep local vets notified of any potential cases so that the spread and rate of infection can be monitored more effectively.