UPDATE: Killer virus in West Sussex farms

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A DEADLY livestock virus sweeping the country has hit farms in West Sussex.

Ten cases of animals infected with the Schmallenberg virus have been reported on this side of the county, warn the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Nine more cases of the disease - which cause birth defects and miscarriages - have been reported in the South this afternoon (Monday February 27).

It brings the total number of identified viruses on farms in England to 83.

Sussex farms are the hardest hit by this year’s outbreak, affecting mainly sheep, goats and cattle.

But officials say the virus is ‘unlikely’ to cause disease in humans.

It is believed the illness has been brought over by infected midges blown across the Channel from infected areas in Europe.

None of the affected farms have reported importing animals during 2011 from diseased areas in mainland Europe.

The impact on the West Sussex sheep flock should become clear over the next two weeks as the lambing season reaches its peak.

A spokesman for Defra said: “As everyone connected with the livestock industry has been expecting, the number of cases of Schmallenberg has increased as lambing and calving begin to gather pace.

“Positive cases of SBV virus have now been identified on the Isle of Wight and in Wiltshire, West Berkshire and Gloucestershire.

“This is in addition to the counties in the east and south of England which have previously had cases identified, namely Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, East and West Sussex, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Hampshire and Cornwall.

“We suspect livestock got the virus from infected midges blown across the Channel from affected areas in Europe.

“As farmers, vets, and governments continue to gather information about the progress and effects of this disease, it’s vital that farmers continue to report any suspicions they have as soon as possible.

He added: “The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says it is unlikely Schmallenberg Virus would cause disease in humans.”

The South East National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says the lambing season will be ‘tough’ and they expect to see more cases as it progresses.

But the group are hopeful science will help find solutions to the disease that has devastating affects.

There is no vaccine for this new midge-borne virus that causes abortions, stillbirths and birth defects in cattle and sheep. In adult cattle it can cause fever, diarrhoea and a decline in milk yields.

Howard Bates, NFU South East livestock board chair and sheep farmer, said: “Sadly we expect to see more cases as the lambing season progresses and as spring calving begins.

“However, the good news is that the UK scientific community is working closely with colleagues in Germany and The Netherlands to learn as much as possible about this virus and we hope science may find solutions for us.”

He continued: “In the near future, we expect scientists to develop a blood test that will identify animals that have been exposed to the virus and are showing antibodies.

“Work undertaken in Germany would suggest that animals exposed to SBV can develop some immunity but we need a vaccine in the longer term and that may be two to four years away.”

Mr Bates added: “Farmers have a key role to play in working with their vets who should submit samples from suspected cases for testing.

“Currently diagnosis of SBV can only be made by a test that uses genetic material. But all livestock farmers must do their bit to help scientists to map the spread of this virus and to understand it better so they can come up with a vaccine.”