24 March 2000
‘Mental illness caused by animal virus’

SOME mental health problems in the countryside could be caused by an animal virus, suspect scientists.

German researchers have linked exposure to animal neurological disease Borna Disease – which especially affects horses and sheep – to mental health problems in humans.

“If the hypothesis is proved to be right, Borna Disease may play a part in mental health problems in people exposed to animals which might be transmitting the infection,” Dr Daniel Thomas from the Public Health Laboratory Service, told the Radio 4 Farming Today programme.

The German scientists tested psychiatric patients and found they had higher than average levels of Borna Disease antibodies in their blood.

This indicates they have been exposed to the disease even though they might not have developed it, say researchers.

From their research the scientists conclude there might be a link between exposure to the virus and the mental health problems.

While it is not known how the disease is passed from animals to humans, it is transmitted from animal to animal through water droplets which are exhaled.

In animals it infects the central nervous system and leads to behavioural problems caused by neurological changes.

The disease is endemic in Germany where clinical cases are seen, but in the UK none have been recorded.

However, little research has been carried out in the UK.

“We are taking this issue seriously and hopefully in the next year or so we will have some interesting results to show,” said Dr Thomas.

A public health conference on Friday (24 March) will alert public health scientists to Borna Disease.