EU extends restriction zones to fight bluetongue

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BRUSSELS, Oct 3 (Reuters) EU veterinary experts agreed today to extend animal restriction zones set up in four countries to halt the spread of bluetongue disease and also to create extra controls in Britain, the European Commission said.

Spread by midges, bluetongue has previously tended to occur in more southerly areas of the 27-country bloc. But it now appears firmly rooted in northern countries: Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Existing bluetongue restriction zones will be extended in Denmark, France, Portugal and the Czech Republic, due to further disease outbreaks, the Commission said.

Restriction zones would also be set up in four counties in southeast England: Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire.

Britain is the EU country most recently affected by bluetongue and now has several confirmed cases.

Monitoring for bluetongue would be compulsory in all infected countries, while EU countries that were so far disease-free would also have to carry out a certain amount of surveillance, the Commission said in a statement.

''National authorities will have to notify the Commission of any restriction zones established in response to an outbreak, as well as subsequent changes made to these zones,'' it said.

Under certain conditions, EU countries would be able to apply ''seasonal zones'', or areas where control measures -- such as movement of animals -- could be eased for limited periods of time if the disease-carrying midges were absent, it added.

Bluetongue does not affect humans and there is no risk of contracting it by consuming milk or meat from infected animals.

At present 24 serotypes of the virus are recognised, whose strength and mortality rates vary considerably. Serotype 8 is responsible for the northern EU outbreaks, a different strain to the three or four types usually found in the south.

''The bluetongue situation in the EU has evolved significantly since the first outbreak of BTV-8 virus in northern Europe in August 2006, and there have been over 23,500 outbreaks of BTV-8 in 2007,'' the Commission said.

Bluetongue is characterised by inflamed mucous membranes, congestion, swelling and haemorrhages. Sheep are often the worst affected, with lameness, drooling and high body temperatures.

The disease can spread extremely rapidly since the midges can be easily propelled through the air by strong winds. Last year, the disease's average spread in Europe was around 15 km per week, or 2 km a day.

Due to the large distances involved in potential midge movement -- bluetongue cannot naturally be transmitted directly between animals -- EU authorities usually impose a ''surveillance zone'' with a radius of 150 km around any infected area.

This compares with just 13 km for foot-and-mouth disease and highly pathogenic avian influenza, for example.

REUTERS SKB BD1908

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