World Organisation for Animal Health discovers Bluetongue vector

October 26, 2006

Brussels, 25 October 2006

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has discovered the answer to a question that has been puzzling veterinary experts since this summer's unusual outbreak of Bluetongue in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France.

The vector responsible for the current spread of the disease has been identified as a biting midge of the culicoides species, called Culicoides dewulfi, which has adapted to the Northern European climate.

Before the latest discovery by the OIE Reference Laboratory in Italy, it was thought that the insect responsible was Culicoides imicola, which is commonly found in Africa.

At a meeting of an OIE expert group on the disease on 20 October, Dr Bernard Vallat, Director General of the World Organisation for Animal Health, said: 'It is an important new epidemiological event because previously all bluetongue outbreaks were linked to an African vector. This suggests the disease could now stay in the entire region with the risk of more cases occurring in spring when the vector activity is very high.'

In fact, scientists have warned that if this specific biting midge is able to adapt to the weather conditions found in Northern Europe, then the virus has the potential to spread throughout Europe.

In practical terms, this could mean countries trading in livestock having to re-evaluate their disease control and surveillance methods.

Although the OIE has already initiated the process of updating the existing international standards for the control of Bluetongue, it says the immediate need is to apply scientific based methods to contain the disease while ensuring that trade continues.

In addition, the organisation believes surveillance of the disease must be stepped up, including in places not previously thought of as risk areas, and vaccination programmes should be implemented.

Dr Vallat, the Director General of the World Organisation for Animal Health, urged vaccine manufacturers to proceed quickly in the development of advanced vaccines so as to effectively control the disease and prevent a slow down in the trade of live animals.

Bluetongue poses no threat to human health. It is an insect-borne viral disease to which all species of ruminants are susceptible. It occurs mostly during periods of high temperature and rainfall and usually disappears with the first frost or severe cold weather, which is when midges stop their activity.

The global distribution of the disease had traditionally been accepted to be between the latitudes of approximately 50°N and 35°S. Following this latest discovery, there is now enough scientific evidence to point to its spread further north, between 53°N and 35°S.

Many scientists believe that globalisation, climate change and the growing speed and volume of international transport of goods and passengers are factors that favour the spread of pathogens and diseases.

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