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Master of Scaremonies
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Mystery surrounds European outbreaks of sheep virus

Health experts baffled by the appearance in Europe of a strain of virus that is deadly to sheep believe it could come from sub-Saharan Africa, a European Commission spokesman has said.

European scientists have identified the strain of bluetongue -- a disease transmitted to sheep by insects but which is not contagious nor known to affect humans -- as "serotype eight", the commission's health spokesman said Monday.

"It's a strain which has never been identified before in Europe," said Philip Tod. "The laboratory experts tell us that is likely to be a strain which is sub-Saharan in origin. We don't know how this strain ended up in Europe."

Tod said that veterinary and health experts were due to hold a special meeting in Brussels later Monday to discuss the disease and possible new measures to combat it.

The outbreak was detected on August 17 in the southern Netherlands, but Belgium and Germany have since reported cases.

Although bluetongue is frequently reported in southern Europe, the outbreak is the first in northern Europe, according to the EU's executive body.

The disease is characterised by inflammation of the mucous membranes, congestion, swelling and haemorrhages. Sheep are generally the worst affected, while cattle and goats do not usually show any clinical signs of disease but can carry the virus for a certain period of time and transmit it to sheep.

It is treated by isolating infected animals and through the use of vaccines.

EU veterinary experts decided a week ago to restrict the movement of ruminants in parts of Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands.

The restrictions apply to a 150-kilometre (90-mile) radius "surveillance zone" covering most of The Netherlands and Belgium, and the western German states of North Rhine Westphalia, Rhineland Palatinate, Saarland and Hessen. All of Luxembourg is also covered.

Ruminants -- as well as semen, embryos and ova produced since May 1 -- cannot be moved out of the zone except under specific exemptions for strictly controlled transit and domestic slaughter.

Tod said this form of bluetongue was proving difficult to spot but he played down fears that it could run rampant.

"It is a strain that is not producing many symptoms and the mortality rate amongst the animals affected is rather low," he told reporters.
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