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Europe's unknown viruses

5th May 2006

05052006_virus5.jpgIn a study commissioned by the British government on the risk of insect-borne and other arthropod-borne viruses emerging in the UK, Ernie Gould of the University of Oxford warns that these diseases may be going unrecognised simply because no one is looking for them. New viruses are circulating in Europe and could be killing people without even being suspected.

A second report launched in April details what diseases may emerge over the next 25 years. The UK's chief scientific adviser, David King said that no one knows what major diseases may arise, adding 'improved detection, identification and monitoring will be critical in catching them earlier than we do now.'

Gould reports that West Nile virus is already present in birds across Europe, and that Tahyna virus, which like West Nile can cause encephalitis in humans, is also common across the continent in birds, mosquitoes and rabbits.

Such diseases may already be infecting and killing people, concludes Gould. About 50 people a year die from viral encephalitis in the UK, but fewer than 40 per cent of these deaths are ever pinned on a specific pathogen, the figures are similar in other developed countries.

Joe Brownlie of the Royal Veterinary College, London, says that wildlife are a huge reservoir of potential pathogens, but at the moment we do very little in the way of surveillance. "We ought to be testing more animals and birds" he adds.

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