Thursday, April 24, 2008

The bluetongue blues

Since the infamous war hero, Tony Blair, resigned and Gordon Brown took over, the news in the UK has been fitting for the most virulent of blues riffs. Brown’s Premiership began with floods, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and an economic downturn fuelled by a US housing crisis. The Gordon Brown blues then reached their apex with the discovery of bluetongue.

When I first heard the report, and showing my urban upbringing, I thought it was a joke or a new technology not too dissimilar to bluetooth but somehow related to cows. However, after hearing interviews with distraught farmers who had little time for gadgets or their livestock getting blue tongues, I realised it was no laughing matter.

For those of you living in countries spared the ongoing reporting of the disease, bluetongue is an illness transmitted by a specific midge. Sheep or cows bitten by the midges can suffer from fever, swelling, congestion, lameness and depression. A discoloured tongue, needless to say, is common and sheep whose lips and nose swell can apparently take on a ‘monkey-face’ appearance.

Most infected animals do not die but lose weight and, consequently, value, although in some species up to 70% can perish. The good news is that humans cannot get bluetongue (unless they drink too much cheap read wine) and animals cannot pass it to others animals (even if one sheep bites another after being teased for looking like an ape).

Bluetongue was first discovered in South Africa, which was the principal site of study for many years, since the disease was not present in other countries – but now it can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the US. Some scientists relate the movement of the midges to climate change.

In South Africa, a so-called ‘weakened’ vaccine is used against bluetongue with some success, but in Europe the vaccine is not considered safe and is still undergoing testing, presumably, because Europeans have the luxury of wealthy governments to assist farmers while a more tested vaccine is developed. This means that bluetongue, like climate change, media hype and terrible British summers, will be around for a while.

So understanding the spread of bluetongue or preventing it is shaped by a north–south divide, money, inconclusive science, environmental destruction and occasionally bad luck. Such a plot line is fitting for any gloomy blues tune. That said, I must admit, blues music cheers me up. I think this is because it alerts me to the fragility of our existence. Realising how flimsy life is, in turn, reminds me that I should use my time wisely.

To this end, I am becoming intolerant of media hype and public panic. I know bluetongue is serious, but the more I listen to the news in Britain, the more I think the media, and, perhaps, some overly comfortable suburbanites, long for the so-called good old days, when diseases sounded really nasty, like the Black Death or bovine spongiform encephalitis. There is an underlying nostalgia in some quarters for woebegone days, when people pulled together as German bombs rained down, and for the daily discussion, not about the weather but about some terrifying apocalypse-like uninhibited terrorism or rampant bird flu.

This might sound cynical, but I don’t think I can cope with another health scare in the media, and the exaggeration and hysteria that follow. It is interesting to learn about the challenges of livestock diseases and how this might affect the welfare of farmers, but that is not the story the media wants to tell. The desired story is about fear and uncontrollable pestilence, and fear sells newspapers and gets governments re-elected.

So here goes my own little blues riff: “Woke this morning, now my chickens got flu; woke this morning, Brown’s gonna see it through. Woke this morning, my sheep’s tongues were blue; woke this morning, jabbering media starting anew.”

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 October 2007.