It's not the sad demise of Debbie the Cow that should concern us but the death of any sense of perspective when it comes to animal disease.

Emily Hill

Topics Politics

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Emily Hill argues that it’s not the sad demise of Debbie the Cow that should concern us but the death of any sense of perspective when it comes to animal disease.

After Foot-and-Mouth Outbreaks I and II, is our epic, national cattle disaster vehicle about to produce a threequel? On Saturday, the cattle disease bluetongue killed a cow in Suffolk – and the press have gone into overdrive. So are we finally heading for Apocalypse Cow?

‘Farmers are anxiously waiting to learn whether a Highland cow found to be suffering from the midge-born disease bluetongue is a one-off case caused by an insect travelling across the North Sea from Northern Europe’, The Times (London) explains. A new ‘shadow hangs over the UK [which has] some of the densest populations of sheep and cattle in the world.’ The BBC went on: ‘Anywhere which has hills dotted with sheep would be devastated.’ The Daily Telegraph, brings out the bovine tragedy behind the news: ‘Debbie the Highland cow was one of the stars of Baylham House Farm. “Debbie will stick her tongue right out and wait for you to put some food on to it”, says its colourful leaflet… On a normal Sunday, eager children would be running around the riverside walk, mixing with the squealing piglets or shyly reaching out to stroke Debbie and the other animals. But yesterday officials from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs were at the farm as it became the first place in Britain to be struck by bluetongue.’ Debbie is now dead (1). Another case of the disease has since been found at the same farm.

Bluetongue is an insect-borne disease that affects cattle, sheep, goats, deer and llamas but not pigs. Humans cannot catch it and the virus cannot be transmitted directly between animals. When an animal contracts the disease, ulcers tend to appear around the animal’s mouth, nose and eyes, before spreading to the head. The animal suffers internal bleeding, eventually struggles to breathe and its tongue turns blue. Those animals that survive the disease are much likely to be much less productive.

The disease has been spreading across Europe over recent years. Thought to have its origins in South Africa, the virus ‘has taken advantage of rising temperatures to spread north moving via Gibraltar through Spain to devastate farms across Germany, France, Belgium and Holland. There have been 4,772 separate outbreaks of bluetongue on farms across the EU this year, almost half in Belgium.’ (3) Since 1999, there have been widespread outbreaks of bluetongue in Greece, Italy, Corsica and the Spanish Balearic Islands and there have also been cases in Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Restrictions on the transportation of cattle have been brought in to try and contain the spread of the disease.

But despite the widespread doom-mongering, there does not seem to be much cause to panic. Firstly, the disease poses absolutely no threat to humans. Secondly, only two casualties of the disease have so far been identified in the UK. Thirdly, as Professor Peter Mertens of the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright in Surrey pointed out to the BBC, a proper winter should stop any spread of the disease in its tracks, at least for this year; the virus cannot replicate below 15 degrees Celsius. ‘That is why the warm temperatures in northern Europe were so important – they allowed it to get well established.’ In the meantime, Mertens and his colleagues at Pirbright are working on a vaccine for the disease, which may be ready next spring.

And if the disease did start occurring in earnest, it might well be contained if appropriate steps are taken. Greece used to see regular epidemics of the disease, but after an aggressive four-year campaign, where infected animals were killed and insecticide was used widely to control the midge populations, the country is now clear of the disease (2).

The danger from bluetongue is negligible. As the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced after the first case was discovered, the ‘premises where bluetongue has been found is under restrictions. The one infected animal has been culled and epidemiological investigations are being carried out to assess the situation.’ As the disease cannot be spread between animals, if the disease does occur, it will be a matter of midge control – which will be manageable.

The main danger is not from blue-tongued cows but tongue-wagging panickers. As Mick Hume wrote of the most recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on spiked, there are two ‘separate but connected issues under discussion here.’ First there is the animal disease – and then there is the panic-fever, affecting humans:

‘…Foot’n’mouth fever [is] a modern and entirely human condition that now tends to emerge in response to any sign of the actual disease. Those suffering this condition talk in doom-laden tones that make foot-and-mouth sound as if it were the Black Death in sheep’s clothing. They turn an animal disease into a focus for society’s wider insecurities and fears, with dangerous consequences.’ (4)

It is unlikely that bluetongue will turn into a rampant epidemic. With a vaccine likely to be available next year, the disease shouldn’t become a permanent fixture in the UK. But constantly over-reacting to the latest problem to afflict us will surely leave the body politic in a sickly state.

Read on:

Who’s afraid of…

(1) Debbie the cow is Bluetongue’s first victim, Daily Telegraph, 24 September 2007

(2) The rise of bluetongue disease, BBC News, 23 September 2007

(3) Bluetongue is latest blow to farmers, Financial Times, 24 September 2007

(4) Stamp out human foot’n’mouth fever, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics


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