Bluetongue virus is now circulating in the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed today.
A fifth case of the disease was confirmed in a cow near Burstall in Suffolk yesterday, close to the rare breeds farm in Baylham, near Ipswich, where the disease was first confirmed on September 21.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced measures today to combat the virus.
Deputy chief veterinary officer Fred Landeg said: "We can now confirm that we do have bluetongue virus circulating in this country. Although this disease is not welcome to the farming community, it is important to emphasise this is a very different disease to foot and mouth."
The deputy chief vet said: "We are early on in the outbreak and our objective is to try and contain the disease to that part of the country where we have these concerned cases."
David Morgan, the chairman of the West Midlands NFU livestock board, said farmers in the region had reason to be worried about the bluetongue outbreak.
"We do have extensive cattle movement in the UK," he said. "It's not uncommon for cattle to come from the east of England to the west for slaughter, there aren't a lot of slaughterhouses on that side of the country"
And he called on the Government to help out farmers suffering this year after the industry was repeatedly hammered by floods, rising grain prices and disease outbreaks.
"We have actually got an industry that's on its knees," he said. "What we have to do is give producers some sort of incentive to go on producing, or else British meat will be in danger of disappearing from the shelves."
Five cases have already been confirmed in Suffolk in the past week. A 12.5-mile (20km) control zone and a 93-mile (150km) protection zone have been set up around the concerned bluetongue cases, with restrictions preventing animals being moved out of those areas.
Dr Landeg said it was too early to say if the disease, which has killed thousands of animals in Northern Europe, was now endemic in the UK.
He said there was a chance that a long, cold winter could stamp out the disease but, based on the experience on the Continent where the disease re-emerged this year, it was likely it could come back.
There is currently no vaccination for this strain of the virus, although one is being developed, and culling of animals is not an effective way of controlling the disease, he said.
He stressed: "There are no human health implications from this disease - this disease does not pose any risk to any human health from meat or milk products."
He said there would be no compensation for farmers because animals were not culled but acknowledged movement controls and the deaths of some infected animals could cost the farming industry tens of millions of pounds.
Dr Landeg said they were working on the basis that it was blown in on the wind on August 4.
"And we hope that (it) is limited to the control zone that we’ve got. But it will spread further and we are currently investigating any spread by possible movement of infected animals."
He said that the virus circulates in the blood for up to 60 days.
"If the very cold weather which stops midge activity lasts longer than that, there’s a hope the disease could die out.
"However, I think that given what we know now, it’s likely that during October and possibly well into November we foresee significant numbers of new cases in this area," he warned.
He stressed that bluetongue was a very different disease to foot and mouth and that stamping out foot and mouth remains the Government’s top priority.
Seven farms in Surrey have been infected with foot and mouth since that outbreak began in August, but Dr Landeg said the two latest temporary control zones outside the county have been lifted and there are now none in place.
He urged continuing vigilance for farmers to look out for possible signs of both diseases.
Responding to the announcement, National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall said: "This news is not unexpected, but it will still come as a bitter blow to farmers across a large swathe of eastern England, who now face the prospect of movement restrictions stretching on for many months into the future.
"But Bluetongue is a nasty disease, which represents a very real threat to the welfare of farm animals, as well as to the economics of livestock farming, so we have to do what we can, and what we are required to do by EU law, to seek to contain it.
"We shall be working with Defra to determine boundaries for the BT zones that cause the minimum possible disruption to the normal movement and marketing of livestock.
"Beyond that, the best hope for eradicating the disease lies in the development of a vaccine that will protect livestock against this particular strain.
"We understand that this may become available next year and we will be pressing both the EU and the international animal health authorities to lift all bluetongue-related restrictions once a programme of vaccination has been successfully implemented.
"In the meantime it is important to remember Blue Tongue can not be contracted by humans so there are no food safety or health issues.
"This is an animal disease spread by midges."