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Tackling facial eczema

Tackling facial eczema

South Island sheep farmers should consider participating in a facial eczema research programme that could help control the deadly disease.

That’s the call from Beef +Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ), which is driving the nationwide three-year research programme for the disease, which is starting to emerge in the South Island.

“We have heard from farms experiencing facial eczema in Nelson and Marlborough, and south of the Awatere River,’’ B+LNZ sector science strategy manager Suzi Keeling said.

“As the disease is less prevalent in the South Island, it is possible that there are many cases which are sub-clinical or are assumed to be another issue.”

The disease, associated with a toxin-producing fungus, affects pasture-grazing livestock, and there is no cure.

The cost to New Zealand’s sheep, beef, dairy and deer sectors because of the disease is estimated to be around $332 million annually, according to B+LNZ’s economic service.

The fungus thrives in warm conditions, which has scientists worried because they think the disease could spread further as New Zealand feels the effects of climate change.

The toxin can cause permanent liver damage and stock affected by the disease will have limited productivity.

Because animals can be asymptomatic in the early stages, farms may be carrying the disease and be unaware.

“One of the challenges at the moment is that there are no strong diagnostic tools to identify if animals have subclinical facial eczema,’’ Keeling said.

“It’s more likely to be suspected based on impacts on production, but it’s one of those diseases that are not necessarily known until there are full-blown clinical effects.”

By the time the disease shows symptoms, such as extreme sunburn and peeling skin, liver damage has already occurred, Keeling said.

Because facial eczema is linked to a fungus, it can be difficult to kill and behaves differently to other diseases, like M Bovis.

“The goal is to eliminate the impact of the disease rather than eradicate it.’’

The research project will investigate possible diagnostic tests, as well as treatment options, which will include farmer-led solutions.

“We want to look at all the different things farmers say that work for them and then at how we support that with science and research.’’

The study would involve about 350 volunteer farmers from 16 regions collecting stool samples from sheep between October and May each year over three years.

“We want samples collected from across New Zealand, regardless of whether farms have experienced facial eczema in the past,’’ Keeling said.

What: Beef +Lamb New Zealand is driving a three-year research programme into the deadly facial eczema disease.

How: About 350 volunteer Sheep farmers from 16 regions must collect stool samples from sheep between October and May each year over three years.

Why: The disease, associated with a toxin-producing fungus, affects pasture-grazing livestock. There is no cure.

Cost: It’s estimated to cost NZ’s sheep, beef, dairy and deer sectors about $332 million annually.

by Claire Inkson