Many sheep keepers, particularly those lambing later, will not have given Schmallenberg a second thought recently. However, it is on the radar of breeders with high value, early lambing flocks, and the National Sheep Association (NSA) was in for quite a shock when it tried to help these individuals get hold of the vaccine earlier this year.
The vaccine for Schmallenberg came to the market at remarkable speed when the disease was first discovered, and NSA and others applauded the animal health companies and Defra’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) for acting quickly and ensuring protection was available via an emergency marketing authorisation.
Subsequent uptake was very low, but until recently, we were unaware this had resulted in the marketing authorisation expiring without Merial Animal Health or MSD Animal Health applying for a full licence.
NSA therefore looked at the option for individual farmers and their vets to import the vaccine on special licence from the continent. Here, the real shock came, as not only is no-one in mainland Europe vaccinating against Schmallenberg, but neither of the companies which make the vaccine have any product in stock.
The UK has been fortunate as high vaccination uptake on the continent reduced the impact of Schmallenberg in its first wave, and bluetongue before it, by lowering the reservoir of disease in livestock and cutting the chance of a midge biting an infected animal and spreading the problem onto our shores.
We did see both viruses affect UK sheep and cattle, but things would have been far worse if farmers in mainland Europe and the east side of the UK had not vaccinated stock at that time.
The concern now is no such buffer exists and, should Schmallenberg rear its head, farmers cannot get their hands on the vaccine at short notice. Unless animal health companies can see a commercial justification for going back into production, farmers will not be able to get their hands on the vaccine at all.
There is a huge concern changes to the UK’s disease surveillance service, coupled with massive Defra funding cuts, is devastating our ability to spot new and emerging diseases.
However, NSA commends the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) for its efforts in the 2014/15 lambing season to test aborted material and deformed lambs for Schmallenberg.
This found the virus was not circulating in the UK last summer, but it does not mean we are guaranteed of seeing the last of the disease. Similarly, bluetongue is rife in Southern European and is only prevented from spreading in our direction by the natural barrier provided by the Alps.
NSA has spoken to the animal health companies about the lack of vaccine availability, explaining while their decisions are entirely commercial and linked to low/zero dales, it is in their interest to help protect the livestock sectors they sell to.
NSA is keen to encourage more dialogue among livestock producers. We are facing a future of more Government funding cuts and a reliance on commercial companies which will only manufacture products if farmers will use them, which presents us with some difficult questions about what level of risk we are comfortable leaving ourselves exposed to.