Monday 15 April 2013


About 6 years ago, when I was working in Dublin, a new guy appeared on the floor to work as a post-doctoral fellow.
I asked him where he came from. 
"China" he replied.
I knew enough not to ask him the politically charged follow-on "PRC or the other one?), so tried "Oh, interesting, whereabouts?"
He named some place and I asked him to repeat it and it still didn't register, so he said patiently "It's the fourth biggest city in China: 12 million people live there".
Tianjin! And I'd never heard of it. 
That's pathetic, now isn't it?  Verging on the shamefully parochial. It's bigger than London!

I'm pretty good about "General Knowledge"; I had an expensive education and am regularly on the winning team in Pub Quizzes, if there aren't too many celebrity picture rounds.  But a Tianjin episode has happened before. In the 1980s we lived in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North-east of England.  Shortly after we moved there, the municipality decided to invite ordinary folks from the German city with which NuponT was twinned and was looking for Geordie host families.  So we signed up for that and went along to the meeting despite that fact that neither of us had heard of the place. Gelsenkirchen!  A chunky industrial city on the Ruhr and it had never figured in either of our educations.  Industrial geography for Europe was limited to chanting "Bari, Brindisi, Taranto, the industrial triangle of Southern Italy".
I hope you did better than me on geography in 'foreign', but I suspect you didn't.

About 120km SE of Gelsenkirchen is another much smaller town called Schmallenberg, and I'd not heard of that either . . . until last month.  As the lambing season pushed on, "Schmallenberg" or some mangled version of the word was on everybody's lips because it's been a disastrous season for sheep farmers in the Sunny South East.  The economics of sheep-farming are delicately balanced, even with the subsidies; the vagaries of the market, the cost of feed, the really cold dry March and April which has delayed the first flush of new grass would make it doomy and gloomy enough.  But many of our neighbours have lost 10% of their expected lambs and some have fared much worse.  There have been abortions, and still-births, physical deformities and neurological issues.  These latter can manifest like the peripheral neuropathy swayback which can be caused by copper deficiency, so it's hard to recognize the plague of 2013 as something new.

They say it's due to Schmallenberg Virus (SBV) which is a member of the family of single stranded RNA viruses called orthobunyaviruses.  These viruses are quite interesting as they're usually transmitted by biting flies of the genus Culicoides which some of my neighbours called midgets.  But a raft of different viruses use Culicoides as a transport system: Douglas virus, Shamonda, Sathuperi, Akabane - all named for the locality they were first identified or after the feller who did the identification. And indeed SBV is named for the small town in Germany.

The virus seems to be relatively benign in adults: a bit of fever, a bit of the runs, a bit off colour as the immune system knocks t'buggers on the head, but if the ewe gets bitten at the wrong time while preg the virus can cross the placenta and start growing in the tiny delicate developing nervous system of the fetus and that has potentially disastrous consequences, as hinted by the enumerated symptoms above.

Why 2011? Why Germany/Belgium?  Why sheep and cattle and goats and probably llamas and possibly camels?  Are our kids susceptible?  That seems unlikely given the evolutionary distance between artiodactyls and us.  There is a suggestion that the weather in 2011, particularly rainfall, was important for the distribution of the Culicoides midges.

Anyway, I hope we aren't about to live in interesting times in the four horsemen sense.  It won't have turned out well if everyone knows where Schmallenberg, Hochsauerland, Westphalia, Deutschland is.

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