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