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The Schmallenberg virus, which has been named after a town in Germany, from where it originated in November, has put the UK and the rest of Europe on alert. Fear of the virus spreading to other regions has gripped livestock farmers and authorities.

The virus is believed to have infected cattle, sheep, and goats in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, causing birth defects in offspring including deformation of the head, neck and limbs.

It is thought the virus is spread by midges or flies; clinical signs include fever, reduced milk yield, loss of body condition and in some cases diarrhea. The virus, which is thought to be carried by flies, was first found to be present in East Anglia and was previously restricted to the South East of England.

Reports on the virus confirmed its first appearance in the west of England at Cornwall. These were confirmed by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA). Additionally, a spokesman from the agency also confirmed 52 farms nationwide as being hit by the virus.

National Farmers Union Vice-President Gwyn Jones met with European Commission officials and farm leaders from across Europe to discuss the worrying spread of Schmallenberg, at an EU Animal Health Advisory Committee in Brussels on Saturday. Addressing officials at the meet, Jones said the number of animals infected with the virus continued to rise and they have received nearly 800 confirmed cases across 5 countries, without provisions for on-farm test and absence of vaccination to protect our livestock, as quoted by a Web site.

Areas that have been identified as high risk locations include Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire therefore making South Wales a high risk area.

Russia has banned import of livestock from affected European nations fearing the spread of the virus while Germany, where the first case was reported, stands top of the list of worst affected with 434 farms testing positive for SBV; with cases in 13 cattle holdings, 402 sheep farms and 19 goat holdings.

In France 94 farms have been found affected by the virus whilst in Belgium and the Netherlands the number of Schmallenberg outbreaks has increased to 102 and 98 respectively.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control pointed out that risk to humans was minimal. The European Union's food safety watchdog EFSA is also assessing the health risks posed by the virus and is due to provide the European Commission and EU governments with likely scenarios of birth spread and life cycle as well as the extent of impact the virus could have on livestock farms.

The World Organization for Animal Health in a recent statement concluded that with current information available to experts, the danger to humans from the virus is negligible.

In the meanwhile, check out the fact file from the OIE portal.