The UK livestock industry remains ‘highly vulnerable’ to bluetongue infection over the next few months, according to the National Sheep Association, which is calling for increased efforts to prepare for an outbreak.
A recent report by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) concluded there was an 80 per cent chance of the bluetongue virus serotype 8 (BTV8) arriving in the UK from France by the end of the summer.
But NSA has expressed concern at suggestions this is a ‘low impact disease’ and said it was ‘working hard to keep the need for an agreed disease control strategy at the top of the agenda’.
Its chief executive Phil Stocker has called for an ‘open dialogue on the choices being faced’ between the livestock industry and the Government, particularly regarding vaccination.
Mr Stocker said the UK currently had its ‘hands tied by there being no vaccine available’ but called for more communication on the issue and more clarity on whether a vaccine will be made available.
He said: “The NSA position, which is shared by the Sheep Veterinary Society, is that we must do all we can to keep the UK clear of the virus and not allow it to become endemic if it does arrive.”
Having spoken to vets in France, NSA understands the majority of confirmed cases so far have been picked up through surveillance rather than clinical signs.
But rather than this pointing to a less virulent strain of the virus, experts suggest circulation is presently limited due to unsuitable weather conditions and/or a degree of residual immunity being present, Mr Stocker said.
“We should treat any opinion that this is a ‘low impact’ disease with extreme caution, as while there may be some residual immunity in France, we do not believe that is the case here,” he said.
“The UK remains highly vulnerable, with a potential BTV8 outbreak posing real welfare and production problems.
NSA understands the French Government currently owns all existing vaccine for BTV8 and has made it compulsory for any stock exiting the restriction zone in France to comply with pre-movement vaccination stipulations.
“Many NSA members tell me that, if a vaccine was available at a reasonable cost, they would choose to use it.
“Whether that would get usage to a level that would protect the national flock is questionable, but that is where we are at the moment and the most important challenge is to get adequate approved and inactive vaccine stocks available at a price that encourages uptake.”
Mr Stocker said: “I urge producers in potentially vulnerable areas to seriously think about how an outbreak of bluetongue could impact on their own stock and their ability to move stock, and to consider committing to a vaccination programme.
“I also urge vaccine manufacturers to step up their communication with the UK livestock industry and to start preparing the way for manufacture.
“The industry and Government need to pick this topic up again urgently – it may not be in time for this potential BTV8 risk, but the issue of cost and responsibility sharing is far from being resolved.”
The NFU has urged livestock farmers to talk to their vets as the industry braces itself for a return of the disease.
NFU livestock board chairman Charles Sercombe said: “There is quite strong evidence that Bluetongue could move to southern parts of the UK by late summer, not dissimilar to the way it moved into East Anglia back in 2007.
“As livestock farmers we should be talking to our vets now about the disease and considering our business options including vaccination which would be a voluntary, protective measure.
“It’s also imperative that we all remain vigilant and look out for any signs of Bluetongue and report any suspicions to our vets immediately. The health and welfare of the herd or flock should remain a top priority.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We have robust disease surveillance procedures in place and are working closely with the livestock industry to carefully monitor the situation in France where bluetongue disease control measures are in place.
"The risk of incursion from infected midges is difficult to predict at this stage because it is highly dependent on the level of disease on the continent, the proximity to the UK and the weather.
"Animal keepers should remain vigilant for any signs of disease and report any suspicions to their vet and the Animal and Plant Health Agency immediately.
"Livestock keepers should also consider with their vet if vaccination is an option which would benefit their business.”
Too see the APHA risk assessment, click here