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Bluetongue in Northern Europe : OIE Reference Laboratory makes a breakthrough in identifying the vector causing the disease

23 October 2006

EU - The OIE Reference Laboratory in Teramo , Italy established that an insect adapted to European climate acted as the vector responsible for the recent bluetongue outbreaks in Northern Europe .
The vector, a biting midge of the culicoides species was identified as Culicoides dewulfi. Previously it was thought the biting midge responsible for the current spread of the disease might be Culicoides imicola which is commonly found in Africa .

“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 all the region with the risk of more cases occurring in spring when the vector activity is very high”, Dr Bernard Vallat, Director General of the World Organisation for Animal Health said during a meeting of an OIE expert group on the disease.

Following unusual outbreaks in Belgium, The Netherlands and France the OIE called for best world veterinary experts on bluetongue to advise the OIE and Member Countries on adjusting existing standards and guidelines for the containment and control of the disease while maintaining a scientific basis for the continuation of trade in live animals. Gathered at the OIE headquarters in Paris on Friday October 20 th 2006 , the scientists, including Dr Rudi Meisswinkel responsible for the finding, disclosed a European vector was incriminated for the first time in the spread of bluetongue in the region.

They further established that due to the adaptability of this specific biting midge to European weather circumstances, the virus now has the potential to expand geographically within Europe which could require from countries trading in animals to have a re-look at control and surveillance of the disease.

Although the OIE has already initiated the process to update the existing international standards for the control of bluetongue, the immediate need is to apply scientific based methods to contain the disease while ensuring the continuation of trade. Surveillance activities for the disease must be intensified even in those areas not previously been regarded threatened by the disease and the application of vaccination programs that would not inhibit trade between countries must be implemented.

Commenting on the experts' recommendations, Dr Vallat also urged vaccine manufacturers to proceed in the development of inactivated and other more technology advanced vaccines that would have the potential not only to effectively control the disease but that would also facilitate trade thanks to the detection of the virus circulation in live animals.

During the meeting support was expressed for the development by the OIE of a worldwide surveillance network for increased knowledge of and transparency on the disease. These initiatives will contribute to improving animal health control worldwide and protecting countries from unjustified trade barriers.

The global distribution of the disease comprising the endemic areas of bluetongue, has traditionally been accepted to be between the latitudes of approximately 50°N and 35°S. There is now enough scientific evidence to accept its spread further north, between 53°N and 35°S.

No danger to humans

Bluetongue is an insect-borne viral disease to which all species of ruminants are susceptible. The disease poses no danger to human health.

It occurs mostly during periods of high temperature and rainfall and usually disappears with the first frost or severe cold weather, when midges stop their activity.

Emerging Diseases

Globalisation, the change in weather patterns and the increase in speed and volume of international transport as well as passengers travel are known factors that could favour the spread of pathogens and the emergence of disease.

Although the source of infection of this outbreak is still under investigation, the OIE highlights the importance of having effective Veterinary Services. The ability to early detect and respond rapidly to an unexpected event is dependent on the effectiveness of a national surveillance system and the transparency in reporting. Veterinary Services are guarantors of animal health and animal welfare.


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