Thousands of lambs have been killed by a new virus that is threatening the survival of many British farms.
The Schmallenberg virus causes lambs to be born dead or with serious deformities such as fused limbs and twisted necks, which mean they cannot survive.
Scientists are urgently trying to find out how the disease, which also affects cattle, spreads and how to fight it, as the number of farms affected increases by the day.
So far, 74 farms across southern and eastern England have been hit by the virus, which arrived in this country in January.
A thousand farms in Europe have reported cases since the first signs of the virus were seen in the German town of Schmallenberg last summer.
The National Farmers Union has called it a potential “catastrophe” and warned farmers to be vigilant. “This is a ticking time bomb,” said Alastair Mackintosh, of the NFU. “We don’t yet know the extent of the disease. We only find out the damage when sheep and cows give birth, and by then it’s too late.”
It is unclear exactly how the disease arrived in Britain, but the leading theory is that midges carried the virus across the Channel or North Sea in the autumn. However, scientists cannot yet rule out transmission of the disease from animal to animal.
Infected ewes do not show any symptoms of the virus until they give birth, with horrific results. Farmers have described delivering the deformed and stillborn animals as heartbreaking.
The lambing season has only just begun, which means that the full impact of the disease will not be felt until the weather warms up and millions more animals are born.
On the Continent, some farms have lost half of their lambs. So far the worst hit in Britain have lost 20 per cent, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Bird flu has been reported in four communes in three provinces of Quang Tri, Thanh Hoa and Soc Trang over the past month, affecting nearly 1,700 poultry and forcing the killing of more than 4,000 domestic fowls, said the department’s deputy head Pham Van Dong at a meeting of the Steering Committee for Bird Flu Prevention and Control.
A number of poultry suspected of catching the disease have started to appear in other localities such as Nghe An, Bac Lieu, Kien Giang, Ha Noi and Thai Nguyen. The outbreak has also resulted in two human deaths in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta’s Soc Trang and Kien Giang Provinces.
The Health Ministry warned of a possible large-scale outbreak of bird flu if the three affected provinces could not keep the disease under control while unfavourable weather conditions, transport and slaughtering of poultry posed a high risk.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development urged localities to immediately vaccinate poultry, increase supervision and tighten management of farms, businesses, markets and slaughtering houses.
Minister Cao Duc Phat ordered cities and provinces across the country to take urgent measures to prevent a resurgence of bird flu.
A mutation of the H5N1 virus has been discovered in the northern region and existing vaccines do not offer protection against the mutant strain, Hoang Van Nam, head of the Animal Health Department, warned. The ministry has called on related agencies to quickly find a new vaccine to replace the existing one.
Health workers in Nepal are to cull thousands of chickens following the discovery of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in the southeastern part of the Himalayan country.
“We sent samples for investigation to London after chickens started to die of a mysterious disease in commercial poultry farms,” said Ram Krishna Khatiwada, of the government’s Directorate of Animal Health. ”We have received the test reports today that confirms infection of bird flu in poultry farms in Khanar and Ithari of the Sunsari district.”
Bird flu has also been confirmed in the eastern hills of Panchathar district and the tea-producing area of Ilam, Katiwada told AFP, adding that surveillance of farms was to be stepped up and 4000 chickens would be killed in the affected areas. ”There has not been infection to humans in the area so far.
“Some have complained of itching and vomiting but that is only panic. We will get the situation under control in one or two days.”
Nepal’s first reported outbreak of bird flu in poultry was in January 2009 in the eastern part of the country.
The virus reached the capital Kathmandu for the first time in December last year, with health workers culling hundreds of chickens and ducks.
If it spreads to humans, bird flu can cause fever, cough, sore throat, pneumonia, respiratory disease and sometimes death.
The number of potentially deadly strains of MRSA that are easily passed between healthy people, outside hospitals is increasing in the UK, experts said today. They include a flesh-eating form of pneumonia, USA300, which has spread across the US and is now being seen in the UK. Dr Ruth Massey, from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Bath, said extra vigilance was required around PVL-positive community acquired MRSA strains.
She drew attention to USA300, a deadly strain of the superbug which passes easily through skin-to-skin contact. It is resistant to treatment by several front-line antibiotics and can cause large boils on the skin. In severe cases, USA300 can lead to fatal blood poisoning or a form of pneumonia that can eat away at lung tissue.
Dr Massey said there were 1,000 cases of PVL-positive community acquired MRSA in England in the last year, of which 200 were USA300 strains.
‘These community-acquired strains seem to be good at affecting healthy people – they seem to be much better than the hospital ones at causing disease. ’They don’t rely on healthcare workers moving them around, which the hospital ones seem to.’
In a new research paper published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Dr Massey and colleagues analyse the way community-acquired MRSAs are able to adapt and fine tune themselves to spread outside of hospitals.
The ability of the MRSA bacteria to secrete toxins is one of the main ways it causes disease. ’Using a sensing system, it carefully controls when it switches on its ability to do this, so as not to cause disease until it is firmly established within the human.
‘Many antibiotics target the cell walls of harmful bacteria, and to resist this, the bacteria have to make changes to their cell wall.’
She added: ‘While we are constantly learning more about MRSA, there is a serious threat posed by this newer strain of bacteria capable of causing disease and even death in perfectly healthy people.
‘We need to respond seriously to this threat as it reaches Britain from the United States.’
An ongoing swine flu outbreak in Mexico has left at least 29 people dead and nearly 1,500 others infected, health officials confirmed on Saturday. Thousands more are also ill as the country faces several types of flu this season.
Since the start of the ongoing winter season, at least 7,069 people have reported suffering from symptoms similar to those of swine flu. Lab tests are still underway and have so far confirmed 1,456 cases of the disease, which is officially known as A/H1N1.
According to Mexico’s Health Ministry, at least 29 people have died of swine flu so far this season. While no health emergency has been declared, officials expect the death toll will rise in the coming weeks as Mexico also faces A/H3N2 and B influenza.
The H1N1 influenza virus emerged in the Mexican state of Veracruz in April 2009 and quickly spread around the world, causing the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a global flu pandemic in June 2009. At least 18,000 people have died of the disease since, although the actual number is believed to be far higher.
In August 2010, the WHO declared that the swine flu pandemic was over. “In the post-pandemic period, influenza disease activity will have returned to levels normally seen for seasonal influenza,” the WHO said at the time. “It is expected that the pandemic virus will behave as a seasonal influenza A virus.”
Bacteria that can resist nearly all antibiotics have been found in Antarctic seawater.
Björn Olsen of Uppsala University in Sweden and colleagues took seawater samples between 10 and 300 metres away from Chile’s Antarctic research stations, Bernardo O’Higgins, Arturo Prat and Fildes Bay. A quarter of the samples of Escherichia coli bacteria carried genes that made an enzyme called ESBL, which can destroy penicillin, cephalosporins and related antibiotics.
Bacteria with these genes can be even more dangerous than the better known superbug MRSA. That’s because the genes sit on a mobile chunk of DNA that can be acquired by many species of bacteria, increasing the incidence of drug-resistant infections such as the E. coli outbreak last year in Germany.
The type of ESBL they found, called CTX-M, is common in bacteria in people, and the Uppsala study found that concentrations of resistant bacteria were higher close to the sewage outfalls from the stations. Some Antarctic stations started shipping out human faeces for incineration after gut bacteria were found nearby. Chile’s research stations have virtually no sewage treatment in place, says Olsen.
Recent work shows the bacteria may hang on to the genes for CTX-M even when no longer exposed to antibiotics, suggesting that superbugs can survive in the wild, with animals acting as a reservoir. Penguins near the Chilean stations have been checked and are free of ESBL, though Olsen is now looking at the area’s gulls as he has found ESBL-producing bugs in gulls in France.
“If these genes are in Antarctica, it’s an indication of how far this [problem] has gone,” he says.
The death toll in Mexico from an outbreak of A(H1N1) swine flu has hit nine, with 573 cases detected, officials said Sunday. The strain represents some 90 percent of detected cases of influenza in the country, the health ministry said in a statement. The number of cases reported was up sharply from Thursday, when health officials said 333 had been identified. Authorities have brushed aside suggestions of a new health emergency but have begun tracking new cases since December.
The first outbreak of the A(H1N1) virus occurred in April, 2009 in Mexico and the United States, and quickly became a global pandemic that claimed the lives of 17,000 people. In Mexico alone, more than 1,250 people died.
The World Health Organization declared the pandemic over in 2010 as the flu returned to typical seasonal patterns.
The Australian Medical Association is calling for age-restrictions on the drinks, after a worrying rise in the number of teenagers becoming ill.
Teens are being admitted to hospital emergency rooms after overdosing on energy drinks. The poisons hotline has received a four-fold increase in calls relating to the high-sugar drinks. Experts say teenagers are being “poisoned” by the drinks and suffering hallucinations, seizures and cardiac problems. Research by the Poisons Information Centre shows the average age of those becoming ill is 15-17.
AMA Victoria vice-president Dr Stephen Parnis said people did not realise the serious health repercussions of energy drinks – some of which had the same amount of caffeine as 10 or 20 cups of coffee.
“Warning labels would be the very bare minimum that should be done,” he said. ”I would think that preventing sales of these drinks to people under 18 is something that we need to look at very seriously. Poisoning is not too strong a word to use for the effects of these drinks on some people. I have seen teenagers present in emergency with heart rates of 200 beats per minute or so stimulated that their behaviour is extremely distressing to their parents and the people around them.” Dr Parnis said some teens had an energy drink as a substitute for a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and others used them as a stimulant for study sessions.
Victorian Poisons Information Centre spokesman Jess Robinson said the number of calls it had received about energy drink poisoning had grown from 12 in 2004 to 46 in 2011.
He said symptoms of an overdose included vomiting, diarrhoea, being hyped up and agitated.