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Coordinating strategy on bluetongue

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THE level of concern about the way in which bluetongue has become established and spread in northern Europe over the past two years was clearly in evidence at a conference in Brussels last week. Some 400 people attended the meeting, which had been organised by the European Commission to discuss a vaccination strategy against the disease. Participants included international experts on bluetongue, senior veterinary representatives from eu member states, Commission officials, and representatives of international animal health organisations and of farming and other interested groups. It would be going too far to say that there was an air of panic about the proceedings. However, the large attendance left no doubt about the seriousness with which the situation is regarded, and the sense of urgency was tangible.

That sense of urgency was clear right from the start of the meeting when the European Commissioner for Health, Markos Kyprianou, announced that the Commission would be making Community agricultural funds available for an emergency vaccination campaign in 2008 (see p 102 of this issue). It was perhaps further underlined by news at the conference that bluetongue virus serotype 8 (btv-8) had now also spread into Spain. The commissioner pointed out that bluetongue caused tremendous suffering and even deaths among the animals affected, so there were strong animal health and welfare reasons to act. He also pointed out that, while the negative impact of the disease primarily affected the farming community, it also had significant implications for society as a whole, affecting milk supplies, for example, and the rural economy by disrupting well established patterns of trade. He said that the principal, possibly the only, effective veterinary measure in response to bluetongue was vaccination accompanied by ancillary measures such as movement restrictions and surveillance. Announcing the emergency vaccination initiative, he noted that only a harmonised approach across the eu would have the desired effect, and he called on the competent authorities and stakeholders in all member states to make the commitment that was needed if the initiative was to succeed.

Developing and implementing appropriate vaccination programmes presents a number of challenges, not the least of which will be ensuring that sufficient vaccine will be available in time for the anticipated resurgence of bluetongue later this year. The meeting heard that inactivated vaccine was the preferred option in the fight against btv-8, but the use of live attenuated vaccines should also be considered where necessary. Given that manufacturers had to gain licensing approval for vaccines and gear up for production, the timescale was extremely tight. With the commissioner having suggested that up to 200 million doses might be needed, concern was expressed about whether enough vaccine could be produced in time, and how supplies might be allocated if it could not. Member states were urged to develop vaccination plans for approval by the Commission, and place orders with manufacturers, so that vaccines might be available to them by the summer.

In the uk, defra has already placed an order for a vaccine and is currently working on plans for how it might be used (see VR, January 5, 2008, vol 162, p 2).

Different vaccination strategies were considered at the meeting in Brussels, in the light of international trade rules and experience with bluetongue outbreaks involving other virus serotypes in southern eu member states. Key messages were that, given the current situation in Europe, vaccination and surveillance represented the best option for safeguarding animal health, and the most appropriate tool for facilitating safe trade. Efforts needed to be coordinated across the eu, but the arrangements needed to be flexible enough to take account of the local epidemiological situation in different member states. One of the lessons learned from experience of bluetongue in southern Europe was that, for vaccination to be successful, it was necessary to achieve vaccination of a high proportion of animals (more than 80 per cent) in affected areas; this will be an important factor for member states to consider when deciding whether their schemes should be voluntary or compulsory.

On the question of whether vets or farmers should carry out vaccination, the view from the Commission was that it was important to work within the existing eu legislative framework. The point was made that trade was based on trust and on controls being properly implemented. This in turn required a transparent approach, backed up by reliable documentation and certification.

Other points raised at the conference were that it was important to differentiate between vaccinated and non-vaccinated animals, and that more information was needed about the midge vectors. It was clear from the meeting that different member states might adopt different approaches to vaccination depending on their circumstances, but there was no dissent from the idea that vaccination was the appropriate response in affected areas. For the time being, the uk is in a more fortunate position than some other northern European countries affected by btv-8 in that the virus arrived one year later; so far, the virus has been confined to a relatively small area and the incidence and prevalence have been low. The challenge over the next 12 months will be to try to make sure things stay that way.

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