A not so ‘Schmall’ problem

By Paul Redmond

I like to travel. I enjoy learning about the history and culture of a place, eating the local food and drinking the local beverage.

Names often conjure up images for me, and I might Google a name to find out more about a place.

Schmallenberg is one I recently Googled.

This is a small town in the hills of Westphalia in Germany, and its name comes from the German for Narrow Castle.

The castle was knocked down in 1240, and the town was fortified. Over the years, it became the centre for iron manufacture, and with the collapse of that, it became a major centre for textile production.

Today most of the work is in forestry, the timber industry, and tourism.

As recently as 2011, Schmallenberg gained worldwide recognition for a virus first identified in animals of the region.

The Schmallenberg virus is classed as an orthobunyavirus and is spread by the biting midge.

Since it is spread by this midge, there are certain times of the year when the virus becomes a problem.

These are the midge months from April to November.

Throughout 2011 and the following year, the disease (Schmallenberg) rapidly spread through Europe.

It affected cattle, sheep and goats. The animals that were bitten by these infected midges showed very little symptoms and farmers were unsuspecting of anything happening.

If there were clinical signs, farmers would have noticed animals off form with a fever for a couple of days, and a reduced production of milk. Some might have slight diarrhoea.

The real problem was not noticed until the following calving, and more particularly, lambing season.

Animals were born with gross deformities like bent legs, locked at the joints, leading to difficult births. Some had twisted necks, swollen heads, curved spines and shortened lower jaws.

A lot of calves and lambs were aborted.

Others appeared normal at birth, but farmers soon realised they were unable to suck, were blind, maybe unable to stand, etc. Lambs seemed to be worst affected, maybe because of the short breeding season in sheep farming, with use of sponges etc. to get them all breeding at the one time.

If the flock was attacked by the infected midges at this time, a lot of lambs were going to show deformities.

The bovine breeding season is more stretched out, so if the herd met the swarm of midges, fewer calves would be at the vulnerable stage.

It was noticed that once animals became infected with the Schmallenberg virus, they seemed to produce a good immunity.

This prompted the swift introduction of a vaccine to protect dams against having deformed offspring the following year.

There was a small take-up of this vaccine.

The majority of people thought that if animals produced a good immunity once bitten, then any further bites would only increase this immunity.

Due to lack of interest, this particular vaccine was withdrawn from sale in Ireland.

It was recommended that the dams of all these aborted foeti and deformed calves be blood tested, to confirm or otherwise that they had Schmallenberg.

The aborted foetus, as in the case of all abortions, should be sent to a laboratory for analysis.

That was six years ago, and the storm passed very quickly.

But, this spring, I have come across a number of odd calvings, and one in particular where the calf was coming backwards, with its back legs deformed and locked, and the pelvis was tiny.

I began to wonder if we were beginning to see the re-emergence of this virus on our area.

It is a possibility.

Only time and testing will tell.

Paul Redmond, MVB, MRCVS, Cert DHH, Duntahane Veterinary Clinic, Fermoy, member practice of Prime Health Vets

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