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UK first in EU to get Merck's new Schmallenberg vaccine

LONDON (Reuters) - British farmers will be the first in Europe to get a vaccine against Schmallenberg virus, a new livestock disease that hit the continent in 2011.

Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said on Tuesday that MSD Animal Health, a unit of Merck & Co, had been issued a license for the new vaccine after an accelerated assessment to make it available this summer.

As a result, farmers will be able to vaccinate sheep and cattle before most of them become pregnant, which is important as exposure to the virus can cause damage to foetuses.

Schmallenberg virus - named after the German town where it was first detected - infected sheep and cows on at least 2,600 farms in eight EU countries in 2011.

It is particularly harmful to the offspring of animals infected during early pregnancy, resulting in stillbirths and malformations such as brain deformities, twisted spines and locked joints.

(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by David Cowell)

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