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Kos island hit by bluetongue

Kos island sheep disease spreads.

Sheep and goat breeders on the Greek islands are in despair as a deadly virus sweeps through their flocks. Greek livestock farmers have reported outbreaks of 'bluetongue' in Kos, Rhodes and other islands in the Dodecanese. Bluetongue is a disease that can decimate flocks and cost farmers thousand of euros. Now dozens of cases have been reported daily and farmers are appealing for help to fight the outbreaks.

Bluetongue is a disease which is spread by midges and symptoms include ulcers, lameness, internal bleeding and the tell-tale discolouration of the tongue.

It affects all ruminants, including sheep, cattle, deer, goats and even camels, although sheep are usually the most severely affected.

The outbreak is so severe on Kos that the island Mayor has written to the Minister of Rural Development calling for action to contain the spread of the disease and to compensate farmers already affected.

He said: "Bluetongue is principally affecting the population of sheep and goats in the island of Kos which results on a daily basis the death of dozens of animals and is expanding the economic misery of the farmers."

Bluetongue, which does not affect people, is normally found in Mediterranean countries but has spread north with global warming.

Infected animals may be culled initially in an attempt to stop the virus becoming established in midges but widespread slaughter of animals is unlikely as it would not affect the insects which are responsible for spreading the disease.

Not all animals develop symptoms, but all those that do lose condition rapidly, and the worst affected can die within a week. Recovery in animals that survive is very slow, lasting several months.

The occurrence of the disease is usually seasonal in Mediterranean countries amid worst in the summer when insect numbers are higher, subsiding when temperatures drop and hard frosts kill the adult midges.

But the milder winters across the Greek islands have resulted in higher and longer lasting insect populations.

At least four farms in the south of Rhodes are known to be infected and animals have already been slaughtered in a bid to contain the disease.

On Kos island it is estimated by the Association of Professional Breeders that a third of the island's total herd may be affected.

The Greek islands of eastern Aegean, such as Kos, Chios, Samos and Lesvos are the most vulnerable to the bluetongue virus as the disease can be carried by mosquitoes from neighbouring Turkey. As a non-European Union (EU) member, Turkey does not have to comply with EU animal health regulations.

There have been outbreaks of different strains of the disease in Greece, Italy, Corsica and the Balearic Islands since 1998. The last case of Bluetongue detected in Great Britain was in 2008 but there have been no cases since and the UK is officially declared free of the disease.

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