Germany's Mystery Cow Disease  

Posted by Big Gav

Der Spiegel has an article on an unexplained outbreak of a disease that causes calves in Germany to bleed to death - Germany's Mystery Cow Disease.

A mysterious illness is causing calves to bleed to death on German farms. Veterinarians are stumped over what is causing the deaths: vaccines, genetically modified feed or perhaps even the first mother's milk?

What can a cattle farmer do when he sees blood running from his calves like water, when they become lethargic and febrile and, by the next morning, are lying dead on the floor, their coats covered in blood?

"Our calves from last summer looked like they had been beaten," says farmer Robert Meyboom, who is still shocked and perplexed today. "The animals' bodies were covered with drops of blood, and their eyes were bloodshot."

The veterinarian tried everything, he says, including administering vitamins and blood-clotting agents. But nothing worked, and "within two or three days, they were all dead."

Meyboom, a farmer from Wesel in the Lower Rhine region of western Germany, has lost seven animals since the first calf bled to death in his barn in October 2007. The last calf died an agonizing death only a few weeks ago. Farmers refer to the victims as "blood sweaters," alluding to the way blood seems to seep from the pores in some of the calves.

A mysterious disease is rampant in Germany's cattle barns. The afflicted two-to-three-week-old calves begin bleeding massively and are often dead within hours. More than 100 cases have been documented throughout Germany, most of them in Bavaria, but the number of unreported deaths is believed to be much higher. Cases have also been reported in Belgium, but experts are still puzzled over what causes the condition.

"This disease is still very mysterious, and clarification is urgently needed," says Wolfgang Klee of the Clinic for Ruminants at the University of Munich in Oberschlessheim on the city's outskirts. Ottmar Distl of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover describes the bleeding calf phenomenon as "terrifying." "We rarely see diseases that are fatal in so many affected animals," he adds.

Veterinarians have been studying the unexplained deaths for the past two years, and the results of their efforts began to emerge last year. "Affected animals bleed from various parts of the body, sometimes from skin that is seemingly intact," says Klee. He has observed bleeding in the mucous membranes, blood accumulating under the white part of the eye, and blood oozing from the tiniest of cuts. The animals develop a fever and soon die.

The experts have discovered massive bleeding of the subcutaneous tissue and intestines. The bone marrow is also severely damaged, and veterinarians describe its consistency as "gel-like." Blood cells are formed in the bone marrow, and the sick animals apparently lack platelets, which are indispensible for coagulation. In addition, the calves' white blood cell counts are substantially lower than normal, making the animals more susceptible to infection.

The unexplained illness has farmers deeply worried. Hildegard and Josef Kirmeier, from the Bavarian town of Wurmsham, have already lost five calves. "Perhaps the soy we add to the feed is genetically modified," Kirmeier speculates. Or could a vaccination be causing the problem?

The theories, some of them outlandish, run rampant on Internet sites catering to farmers, such as a chat room for women farmers called "Bäuerinnentreff." The farmers have discussed everything from poisonous ferns to "decades of abusive inbreeding," solar panels and the "radiation from radio towers" as possible causes of the illness.

Many farmers blame the "blood sweating" on a controversial vaccine against bluetongue disease, which became mandatory for cattle in Germany in April of last year.

Since then, farmers who refuse to vaccinate their animals are threatened with fines. One of them is Gertraud Schützeneder, who operates an organic farm with her husband Konrad in the Bavarian town of Simbach am Inn. "We do not want to subject our animals to the vaccination," says the determined farmer. Schützeneder is convinced that the mysterious blood-sweating condition is "somehow indirectly related to the vaccination."


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