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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Meet the Schmallenberg Virus

It’s no secret that I love a good infectious entity, preferably something new and ideally in a country I don’t live in. That way I can be safely fascinated and yet relatively unconcerned about my personal health and that of my patients. The Schmallenberg virus fits these qualifications perfectly.

The Schmallenberg virus (SBV) was first identified in August 2011 — yes, this baby is brand-spanking new. Something was noticed amiss in Germany when some dairy cows started showing signs of fever, anorexia, decrease in milk production, and over-all loss of body condition. With a mortality rate of anywhere from 20 to 70 percent, this unknown entity spread across Germany and into the Netherlands by October of last year. By November, farmers began seeing abortions in their livestock and births with severe malformations. As the mystery grew, samples were sent to a German diagnostic lab (in Schmallenberg, to be exact), where a novel viral entity was found, confirming they had something new on their hands. And thus SBV had arrived.

By spring of 2012, the virus had been identified in over 2,100 farms in eight European countries, infecting cattle, sheep, goats, and bison. Infections in the United Kingdom are currently thought to have arrived via insects, as researchers have concluded that biting insects such as mosquitoes, and possibly midges and flies, are the reservoir and vectors of this disease. It is currently unknown where this virus came from.

Because of my macabre fascination with disease epidemics, especially novel diseases like SBV, West Nile Virus, and Ebola, one would think I would have an interest in epidemiology, which is the study of the incidence and distribution of diseases. This could not be further from the truth.

Firstly, a huge chunk of epidemiology is statistics. Statistics! That in itself is a killer. Secondly, very few epidemiologists get to go out to do field work, hunt down viruses and bacteria, and ask concerned yet pointed questions to herdsmen or hunters who have seen Disease X or reported a case of Bacterial Y. I’ve seen the movie Outbreak and have been informed that it’s just not very realistic. Can’t a girl just wear a Level 4 Biohazard Suit for fun sometimes?

There are veterinary epidemiologists. I’d like to point out that it was indeed a veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo who identified West Nile Virus when it arrived in our nation back in 1999 (Just a little shout-out to my hero, Dr. Tracey McNamara, for that discovery). Some schools offer Masters in Public Health degrees that DVM students, once graduated from vet school, can apply for — and good for them, I say. Bravo. Please take your statistics far away from me, but keep writing compelling books about emerging diseases that I can read at night while curled up on the couch drinking tea, scared to death, for no particular reason, that I may have Ebola.

SBV seems to be genetically related to another family of viruses that does not cause clinical disease in humans, and so far there have been no reports of humans contracting this virus. For these reasons, it’s been judged so far that the risk of human infection is negligible, but Europe’s version of the CDC is still monitoring this disease closely, especially as those pregnant livestock that were infected last fall began aborting and delivering malformed offspring this past spring.

No word yet on if the experts think this is something that is in Europe to stay, or if this is the kind of thing to slowly die off. This of course also begs the question: If it’s here to stay in Europe, how long will it take to reach the U.S.?

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: plastic cow by kentoh / via Shutterstock

Comments  3

Leave Comment
  • Statistics
    07/20/2012 07:06am

    Statistics! You say, "Euuuuu", but I say "Wheeeee!" Love working with them. Love reading them. (Demographics are particularly interesting.)

    There are so many scary viruses around. Once they are identified and a vaccination is created, they have the audacity to mutate.

    If science could only figure out how to harness the adaptability of viruses and apply it to the human and animal species.

  • I Know how you feel!
    07/20/2012 07:45am

    Hi Dr. Anna! I totally understand your fascination with epidemics and disease. Despite the destruction they can cause, it is breathtaking how a virus can grow, infect, and adapt. Have you read any of Richard Preston's books? The Demon in the Freezer, Hot Zone, and the Cobra Event (the last one is fiction, but just as compelling!) all focus on disease and have plenty of scenes in a Level 4 Lab wearing a Hazmat suit! If you haven't already, check them out!

  • 07/20/2012 11:54am

    Yes! I read Preston's The Hot Zone a few years ago and LOVED it! I'll have to put his other books on my ever-expanding "to-read" list.


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