The British government is not complacent about bluetongue and will take action against the disease at a very high level, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said.
According to the BBC, Brown confirmed there were now 11 cases of the disease and promised the government would do all it could to "contain, control and eradicate" the outbreak. Praising farmers for their resilience, he promised help for those affected. The government earlier said there would be no compensation for farmers whose livestock were hit by the disease. Mr Brown said Environment Secretary Hilary Benn will be consulting with the farming industry over coming days on the financial implications of the outbreak, and will look at what actions the European Commission can take to help. He said Mr Benn would make a statement about what the government could do to relax regulatory requirements on the farming industry to make things easier for them. Rachel Carrington, of the National Farmers Union in East Anglia, said there were "a number" of potential bluetongue cases being investigated, and "unconfirmed cases" in Norfolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire and the East Midlands. She said the outbreak had left farmers confused. "We desperately need things clarifying so we can tell people what they can and can't do. We need a detailed map of the movement restriction boundaries. "Economically, things are very difficult for farmers. On top of foot-and-mouth, bluetongue is just another layer of pressure on them." Mr Brown also announced that a 24-hour phone and internet service had been set up to keep farmers up-to-date on the latest developments. Deputy Chief Vet Fred Landeg acknowledged movement controls would cost the industry tens of millions of pounds. But he said there would be no compensation payments because no more culling would take place. Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union, said the virus was a "bitter blow" to the countryside. A protection zone has been set up in Suffolk after government vets confirmed bluetongue disease was circulating in the UK and was classed as an outbreak. The zone will be a minimum of 150km around infected premises. A stricter 20km control zone has also been set up around the known bluetongue cases, with restrictions preventing animals being moved out of both zones. Mr Landeg said test results had shown the disease was being transmitted by biting midges "rather than animal to animal". This meant a cull would not help stamp it out, he said. Mr Landeg said the aim now was to "contain the disease to that part of the country where we have these confirmed cases", but he warned that bluetongue was a very different disease to control to foot-and-mouth. A cold winter could help eradicate the virus, but he warned that it was likely there would be a "large" number of cases before then, and that it could return afterwards. There was currently no available vaccine for this strain of the virus, but it did not "pose any risk to human health", he said. There have been nearly 3,000 cases of bluetongue in northern Europe, including the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany, since July, which had fuelled fears of its arrival in the UK. In the continent Dr Armin Elbers an epidemiologist, from Wageningen University, in 2003 he warned the Dutch government that bluetongue would spread from the south of Europe to northern countries because the midges that carried the disease were likely to migrate northwards as the climate changed. But when the first cases were diagnosed in the Netherlands in 2006, the scientists were surprised. The version of bluetongue found in Dutch cattle and sheep was not the same as the one found in southern Europe. Dr Elbers explains: "The type of virus that we found in the Netherlands is called BTV serotype 8. It's different from the ones found in the southern part of Europe. "BTV virus serotype 8 is found in Africa, South East Asia and the Dominican Republic - it came here unexpectedly from somewhere else. We still don't know where it came from." Experts say the outbreak that began in the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Germany and France in August 2006 might have been caused by horses, or more specifically their manure. The theory is that horses from many different parts of the world came to a European show jumping event in the summer of 2006 and the midges that spread the virus came with them, traveling in horse manure. This, say the scientists, might explain why the northern European outbreak was of the same serotype as found in other parts of the world such as Asia and South America. But Dr Elbers believes that both natural and commercial factors have helped spread the disease. "We've looked at the wind spread in this epidemic and we think that wind might be a possibility for spreading the disease within Europe. Another aspect is the transportation of animals, particularly in Belgium. "Animals are born in the eastern part of the country but fattened in the western part so the disease has been spread much more quickly because of the transportation of infected animals." The disease is very difficult to deal with. It may not be as deadly to animals as foot and mouth or BSE but it is extremely difficult to get rid of. Dr Elbers explains: "It is very different in cattle than it is in sheep - In cattle farms you only see a few sick animals but 50 to 60% can be infected meaning there is a large reservoir to spread the disease. "Preventing contact between the midges and cattle is very difficult - the only way to prevent clinical disease is vaccination but it will be a trade-off because it is expensive." Climate change has been blamed for the spread of the midges that cause the disease - but Armin Elbers says its effects are indirect. He said: "The midges have been here for hundreds of years but because of the warmer summers there are more opportunities for the virus to replicate in these insects at a higher level and therefore the insects are more likely to pass it on to sheep and cattle. "We are very anxious to see what happens in the coming months. The midges die away in the winter, but the key thing is whether the virus is over wintering in animals. "It can fade out but it can become endemic as in Italy where the disease is endemically infected and they have to live with the disease." Dr Piet Van Rijn says that the real concern is that the midges that spread bluetongue can also spread other more deadly infections. "Other diseases are also spread by midges such as West Nile virus and Rift Valley fever - with climate change it could come to these northern European regions and be a problem not just for agriculture but for human health as well".