The Reporter
Issue no 487, 27 January 2003
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Stopping sheep scab is a 'mite' closer


sheep scab mites

A vaccine to control the spread of sheep scab is a step closer, following a major breakthrough by researchers at the University of Leeds. The research is part of a multi-million pound DEFRA-funded national programme to reduce the use of dangerous chemicals by farmers.

Dr Alison Lee and Professor Elwyn Isaac have identified and isolated a protein from the sheep scab mite (pictured above) which triggers the sheep’s immune responses, protecting it from infestations. The protein could be used to form the basis of a vaccine against sheep scab.

Dr Lee said: “Sheep scab is currently treated with the application of organophosphates, but there is widespread concern over the risks these chemicals pose to agricultural workers, to consumers who eat the meat, and to the environment when chemicals enter the water table. There are also worries that the mites which cause the disease will become resistant. A vaccine is a more sustainable option, and could be more cost effective for the farmer.”

Sheep scab was eradicated in the UK in 1952, but was reintroduced from Ireland in the 1970s and is now endemic in UK sheep flocks. Cases of sheep scab are increasing and outbreaks are reported in all parts of the UK. The disease is highly contagious, and causes extreme discomfort to the animal, which will scratch infected areas against fences or walls, often opening up wounds which can lead to potentially fatal secondary infections.

The researchers from the school of biology have been working with scientists at The Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh, the Veterinary Laboratory Agency and the University of Aberdeen to develop an alternative non-chemical method to control the disease, with the aim of developing a strategy such as a vaccine that could offer long-term protection without any danger to operators or the environment. They now plan to use the protein in vaccine trials and to develop a test for the early diagnosis of sheep scab infections.


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