BERLIN -- A new virus is threatening stocks of sheep, cattle and goats in Germany and elsewhere in the EU.
The so-called Schmallenberg virus has affected some 240 breeders in 11 German states and has now also found its way into farms in Holland, Belgium, France and the UK, according to the Hamburger Abendblatt daily. Though causing only mild symptoms in adult animals, the disease is responsible for a number of birth defects and still births among the offspring of infected mothers.
"Naturally our members are discussing the situation here," Silvia Ey, speaker for the Agricultural Association for Animal Farming in northeast Germany told the local daily Nordkurier newspaper.
"You take the threat seriously, but you don't panic." She added that a risk of transfer to humans has yet to be detected.
The virus was likely transmitted to its hosts via gnat bites, which are suspected to have infected herds in Germany in late summer 2011, according to online news portal PNN.de. But animals cannot infect one another, and some experts say the virus is highly likely to die out as herds develop immunity.
"Infected mothers who have developed an immunity [to the virus] can give birth to healthy babies again," Rolf Allman, epidemic expert at the Chemical and Veterinary Research Office (CVUA) in Münster, told German daily Die Glocke. He said the number of stillborn offspring will naturally begin to decline as a result, with few or no new cases of the disease within the same herd.
But breeders and farmers remain wary as research on the Schmallenberg virus is still in the early stages, and the full scale of financial losses - existing or potential - is unclear.
"As soon as one illness is gone, we're battling another," Sven Grumbach of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania's state Sheep Farming Association told the Nordkurier, highlighting the cyclical nature of the problem.
"Whether the sickness pertains to the baby or the mother, the situation could mean economic disaster for breeders," he said.
The Teaching and Research Institute for Animal Breeding and Farming (LVAT) near Berlin told PNN that its Schmallenberg-affected herd is achieving only one half to one third of the number of healthy births compared to previous years. Resulting costs to the institute are already being estimated at anywhere between 5,000 to 10,000 EUR, with the possibility that it will have to foot the bill alone without government assistance.
"We shouldn't be timid on the issue," Grumbach said, adding that the general hope is for an official "obligation to report" to go into effect by April 1st, which would allow farmers to claim damages from a sort of animal epidemic insurance fund.
Germany's Minister of Agriculture Ilse Eigner is currently pushing for an EU-wide mandate to report further cases of the virus, according to the financial newspaper Handelsblatt.