Bluetongue animal vaccination starts in most of EU
By Jeremy Smith
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU farmers have mostly started vaccinating animals against bluetongue, the virus that ravaged northern Europe's cattle and sheep in 2007, but success depends on vaccine supply and speed of applying it, officials say.
Bluetongue swept across around 11 EU countries last year and struck again recently in parts of Italy and France as warmer weather took hold in central and northern Europe.
Spread by midges, the virus had previously tended to occur in more southerly EU regions until 2006, when it moved further north. Bluetongue does not affect humans and there is no risk of contracting it by consuming milk or meat from affected animals.
Whether vaccination is compulsory or voluntary is decided per country but many have made vaccination of younger cattle and ovine animals compulsory. Vaccination plans have now begun in most countries where animals have been affected, officials say.
Some countries, like Belgium, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, have made their entire national territories subject to compulsory vaccination for certain animal categories.
Last month, the EU's health chief warned national ministers that farmers would not have an easy time in the fight against bluetongue this year as the disease situation continued to evolve with new outbreaks in countries like France and Italy.
"The situation will be bad in the newly infected areas unless they manage to vaccinate before mid-June," one official at the European Commission said.
"In heavily infected areas, the situation will be better than last year as most of the adult population was infected last year and is better protected now," the official said, adding that newborn animals were still at risk if not vaccinated quickly.
The disease comes in different strains, or serotypes: in more southerly countries serotype 1 has been prevalent; while in northerly areas serotype 8 -- for which a vaccine has only recently become available -- has dominated.
But there is some crossover, especially in France, and this has worried many experts.
"There are problems in France with serotype 1 ... which isn't as bad as serotype 8, it behaves more like a "traditional" bluetongue type: very few symptoms in cattle and it's worse for sheep," one official at a national farmers' organization said.
"But those areas are crossing and they don't have much vaccine. Britain is about the only country with enough vaccine," he said. "It's all about timing ... and there are still a lot of animals out there that won't have had the disease last year."
The bluetongue virus is characterized by inflammation of the mucous membranes, congestion, swelling and hemorrhages.
Sheep are often the worst affected animals, suffering from breathing problems, lameness, drooling and high body temperatures. In some cases, the animal's tongue turns blue.
(Editing by Peter Blackburn)