THE deputy head of the state vet services, Christodoulos Pipis, on Friday rejected claims that the government was not quick to deal with the outbreak of bluetongue among the island’s sheep population, which has affected milk production and in a knock-on effect, cheesemakers.
The issue was discussed on Friday at the House agriculture committee, as the disease, which was detected and confirmed in late September it continues to spread.
According to Pipis, to date, 859 animals died and around 1,440 suffer from the disease. “This does not mean that the cause of death or sickness of these animals is 100 per cent due to bluetongue. Some may have been already weak from other factors,” Pipis told the Cyprus Mail.
He added that the disease affects mainly farms in the Larnaca and Famagusta districts. Nicosia is also affected but only up to the Nisou area. Limassol and Paphos are considered as disease-free.
Bluetongue is an insect-borne, viral disease of ruminants, mainly sheep and less frequently cattle, goats, buffalo, deer, dromedaries, and antelope. It is caused by the bluetongue virus (BTV), which is transmitted by midges. The disease has 26 serotypes.
The disease had been confirmed at the beginning of October after samples sent to the UK were tested. Until now, only serotypes 4 and 16 have ever been recorded in Cyprus and because of acquired immunity there have been no cases of clinical symptoms in decades. The disease was first diagnosed in Cyprus in 1924 and it can be fatal to sheep.
“The disease is not transmitted to humans, nor other animals, as it is solely transmitted through insect bites,” Pipis said. He added that in the unlikely possibility that humans consume meat or milk from infected animals, they are not in danger.
The government is under fire as the outbreak is thought to have started from a number of infected sheep the state Agricultural Research Institute’s (ARI) Athalassa experimental farm that were sold to private farms. Pipis said this concerns eight sheep.
“The animals from the experimental farm were in an area that was not affected by the disease. When they were tested, they still had not exhibited any symptoms,” Pipis said. He added that when the sheep at the government estate presented symptoms, and tests for bluetongue came positive, officials of the ARI, located the sheep that had been sold to private farms and had them euthanised. Five of the sheep, Pipis said, were sold to farms in Limassol and Paphos and the rest in the other districts.
He said that the government made arrangements to use insecticide against the midge population and have made enquiries with companies abroad to buy vaccines.
“There will be compensations (to the affected farmers),” Pipis said.
Pipis said that when they first enquired about buying the vaccine from a French company, they were told it was not available. France has had its own outbreak of bluetongue recently. He added that they were making enquiries with other companies and are also in anticipation of the approval of the necessary budget to purchase it. Many farmers, however, he said, have already made arrangements to buy the vaccine by themselves.
Pipis dismissed claims that the government did not act fast, as he said, the total control of the disease is not feasible due to the means of transmission.
According to the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), bluetongue, he said, “is a transboundary disease, so national measures are insufficient to control its spread”.
The disease has begun to affect cheesemakers as well, as they are getting less milk than usual from the farms and should this continue, they said, it would affect the production of halloumi, which must contain least 20 per cent sheep’s and goats’ milk.
“Many farms have been affected and produce a lot less milk as some of their sheep died and other are sick,” said the head of the cheese makers’ association, Giorgos Petrou.
He added that the loss percentage has not been calculated yet as it is too soon.
“Even when there was no disease outbreak we were having difficulties in producing halloumi as there was not enough sheep’s and goats’ milk,” Petrou said. He added that they had asked the agriculture minister a month ago to lower the milk ratio standard for the production of halloumi, but that he refused.
Head of the island’s sheep and goat farmers’ association, Stavros Demetriou, said that the disease was a huge blow to the already ailing sector.
“It happened now that we are trying to increase production of sheep and goat milk for the production of halloumi,” Demetriou told the Cyprus Mail.
But what is worse, he said, is that almost two months after the disease was detected, the government hasn’t provided the necessary drugs yet to tackle it.
“We were told to wait until the end of the month, meanwhile milk production is gone”.
One farmer after another are closing down their units, he said, as they are ruined, “first the drought, now the Bluetongue”.
“We are heroes for insisting on doing this profession,” Demetriou said.