Somewhere among the dairy farms and forested hillsides of Schmallenberg, a picturesque district of 26,000 people in central Germany, a deadly new virus was born.
Or at least, that’s where it was first noticed a month before Christmas by scientists who examined a dead, new-born lamb with terrible deformities, on one of the 100 or so farms in the area. As is common in the world of science, the disease was named after the locality…
In the past few years Schmallenberg has made the best of its natural advantages to market itself very successfully as a healthy place for holidays close to nature. Since 2010 the town hall has worked hard to help farmers’ wives develop a lucrative sideline in farm stays where city families can enjoy life on a real working farm.
Becoming ground zero in an international disease outbreak has put all this in doubt. At the same time the livelihood of farmers who have lost lambs has been threatened.
By no means every farm has been hit, but there have been casualties, with affected farms losing as many as one in four of their new-born lambs and in some cases even 50 per cent…
Although plenty of farmers are prepared to talk openly about the virus, nobody will say exactly where in Schmallenberg it was first detected. The mayor said he did not know which farm was the first.
The mayor proudly pointed out that his town was founded in 1244. “Not much has happened since then,” he said with a wry grin. “Until now…”
“It was November 22,” Mr Halbe said, referring to the date when the disease was named after the town. The first cases were found in August.
As the scientists examined the corpse of the first dead lamb, the initial worry was that the disease could infect humans, through contact with farm animals or eating them. To everyone’s relief, that was deemed unlikely, although health agencies in Germany are still carefully monitoring farmers and vets who come into contact with infected herds.
The disease seems to move between species. Goats have been affected, and even bison. Scientists think adult cows have suffered fever and a drastic reduction in milk production, although so far none seem to have died from it…
Nowhere do Germans hope more fervently that the virus will fade away and quickly be forgotten. Then Schmallenberg can have its name back.
RTFA for the gory details – if you care to. The sort of disease particularly disturbing because it attacks in the womb.
UPDATE: The virus has crossed France and arrived in England. 74 farms in the UK affected, so far.