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Date: Wed 19 Feb 2008 - Source: Northern Ireland Executive web-site:
Bluetongue Disease Minister's Statement to Assembly [abridged, edited]

[Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development Michelle Gildernew,
MP MLA, made a statement on bluetongue disease to the Northern
Ireland Assembly on Wed 19 Feb 2008, from which the following excerpt
is derived:]

Last Thursday, 14 Feb 2008, we obtained a preliminary blood test
result from one imported dairy heifer located on a farm in North
Antrim that indicated the likely presence of the bluetongue virus.

I took the decision to cull that animal on the same day, as a
precautionary measure while we waited for confirmation of the result
from the Community Reference Laboratory in Pirbright.

The result, which was formally confirmed the next day [15 Feb 2008],
showed the presence of bluetongue virus in this animal.

The animal was one of a group of 21 dairy cattle imported to this
farm from the same collection centre in the Netherlands during
January 2008. The animals had originated from farms in the
Netherlands and Germany.

These animals had been tested for bluetongue after arrival here, as
is routine for any ruminant animal imported into the North from the
continent, on 22 Jan 2008.

At that time, this animal was negative for both evidence of exposure
to the virus, that is the ELISA test, and it was also negative for
the presence of virus on the PCR test.

At this post-import test, there were 8 heifers in the group of 21
that tested positive for antibodies, and this indicated that they had
previous exposure to the virus, that is they were ELISA positive.

Just so that everyone understands what this means, these animals did
not have live virus in their blood, just antibodies, a bit like
someone having had chicken pox as a child who still has antibodies
years later.

These animals also were tested for live virus by the PCR test, and
all were found to be PCR-negative, which indicated the absence of
active infection.

However, we took the precaution of restricting the herd for a longer
period of time than is usual and retested all of the cattle 30 days
post-import. This retest was done on 11 Feb 2008, and it was at this
test that the one heifer showed up positive on PCR, that is we found
the presence of the bluetongue virus.

Having culled the infected heifer and received confirmation of a
positive test, on Friday [15 Feb 2008] we took the decision to also
cull her calf [What age? - Mod.AS] as an additional precaution. This
was because it was possible that the calf was infected, due to the
risks of virus transmission to the calf before birth and because of
the close contact it had had with its mother.

Over the weekend, we received results from tests on blood samples
collected on Fri 15 Feb 2008 from the calves born to the other cattle
in this group. They showed that 3 out of 4 calves born to heifers in
this group were ELISA-positive and PCR-positive, that is they also
showed active infection with the bluetongue virus.

On the basis of these results and in light of the findings of the
investigation so far, I took the decision on Sunday [17 Feb 2008] to
cull the remaining 20 cattle in this imported group and all of their

The culling of these animals was completed on-farm yesterday [Mon 18
Feb 2008].

It was judged prudent to remove all of the remaining heifers in this
group, as the mechanism by which the original animal and the calves
became infected is uncertain. What is certain is that this group of
cattle had already been exposed to the infection and that they
presented a risk.

The mechanism by which animals in this group have become actively
infected at this time is still under investigation, and further
testing is taking place in AFBI and Pirbright as I am speaking to you.

However, and this is important, there is no evidence that vectors are
active in this shed, and the suckler herd held in the same airspace
remains uninfected, although intensive surveillance is still being
undertaken on this group. I will return to this point shortly.

Finally, I wish to inform you that yesterday [18 Feb 2008] we also
culled a further 3 animals imported in another batch as a
precautionary measure. Because of the uncertainly of the mechanism by
which the animals in the 1st group were contacting the virus, it was
considered prudent to remove these additional animals. In total, 30
animals were culled on the farm.

The Department is under no obligation to pay compensation for
imported animals that have been infected by, or exposed to, the
bluetongue virus.

I want to repeat that my Department and I are determined to do all we
can to keep the North's Bluetongue-free disease status. This cull
does not mean that the disease is circulating here.

An outbreak of bluetongue and the infected status of a country depend
on the presence of evidence to show that the virus is circulating in
animals other than those imported with the disease, which is taken to
demonstrate infection in the local midge population.

We have no evidence from our active surveillance at this time to
suggest that this is the case, and so the North, indeed the island of
Ireland retains its Bluetongue-free disease status.

I have kept DEFRA and Mary Coughlan, Minister for Agriculture in the
South, informed.

I assure you I will continue to be focused on trying to ensure that
this disease is contained through quick, decisive action. The
remaining cattle and sheep on this farm will continue to be
restricted and will be tested regularly until we are satisfied that
there is no remaining risk of infection.

Surveillance testing will be extended as necessary for other imported
animals and across other areas of the North. In the meantime, nothing
must divert us from the immediate task, which is to implement
intensive surveillance around the affected farm in North Antrim. I
should also say that this is the only farm that has given cause for
concern. I will keep the Assembly informed as the investigation
progresses and as more information comes to light that helps us to
understand the incident on this farm.

We have not received any positive test results in respect of animals
imported to any other premises.

In conclusion Mr Speaker, as I said on Friday [15 Feb 2008], farmers
who are considering importing livestock from bluetongue affected
areas should "wise up" if they are serious about keeping bluetongue
out of the island of Ireland. On Friday [15 Feb 2008], the Ulster
Farmers' Union President called for a voluntary ban in relation to
the import of animals from bluetongue affected areas. I welcome this
move, as I do not have any statutory power to ban such imports, and
would plead again with farmers considering importing to think again.
This experience demonstrates that it is far too risky.

One farming business has already suffered loss. I appeal again to
anyone thinking of importing animals at this time to think twice
about the impact it may have on their own business and the wider

I assure you that I and my Department will continue to do all that we
can to retain our Bluetongue-free disease status but, as I have
repeatedly said, we need everyone in the farming industry to be
responsible and vigilant.

Communicated by: Sabine Zentis
Castleview Pedigree English Longhorns Gut Laach 52385 Nideggen,

[In light of the above revelations on PCR-positive results in
imported heifers as well as in 3 of their 4 newborn calves, the
terminology "1st case," which was questioned in our posting
20080217.0637, can be better understood and cannot be categorically
denied. The transformation of animals which tested ELISA and PCR
negative upon arrival in BTV-free Northern Ireland into positive
ones, probably at least 3 weeks after their importation, is indeed

The timetable of their route from the farms of origin on the
continent until arrival in the destined Northern-Irish farm,
including dates and duration of possible intermediate stay(s) in any
locations underway -- on the continent and/or on British territory --
has to be completed. The findings in newborn calves (when and where
have they been born?), namely their positive ELISA and PCR tests, add
to the mystery. Extended viraemia in the heifers is just one of the
hypothetical explanations, and not an overly satisfactory one.

Minister Gildernew is well aware of the enigmatic nature of the
mechanism by which animals in this group have become actively
infected at this time under the described circumstances; the results
of the ongoing investigations in AFBI and Pirbright are anticipated
with great interest. - Mod.AS]