Open Access Research article

Surveillance and simulation of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and scrapie in small ruminants in Switzerland

Chantal Häusermann1, Heinzpeter Schwermer2, Anna Oevermann1, Alice Nentwig1, Andreas Zurbriggen1, Dagmar Heim2 and Torsten Seuberlich1*

Author Affiliations

1 NeuroCenter, Reference Laboratory for TSE in animals, Department of Clinical Research and Veterinary Public Health, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Berne, Switzerland

2 Federal Veterinary Office, Liebefeld, Switzerland

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BMC Veterinary Research 2010, 6:20  doi:10.1186/1746-6148-6-20

Published: 18 April 2010



After bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) emerged in European cattle livestock in 1986 a fundamental question was whether the agent established also in the small ruminants' population. In Switzerland transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) in small ruminants have been monitored since 1990. While in the most recent TSE cases a BSE infection could be excluded, for historical cases techniques to discriminate scrapie from BSE had not been available at the time of diagnosis and thus their status remained unclear. We herein applied state-of-the-art techniques to retrospectively classify these animals and to re-analyze the affected flocks for secondary cases. These results were the basis for models, simulating the course of TSEs over a period of 70 years. The aim was to come to a statistically based overall assessment of the TSE situation in the domestic small ruminant population in Switzerland.


In sum 16 TSE cases were identified in small ruminants in Switzerland since 1981, of which eight were atypical and six were classical scrapie. In two animals retrospective analysis did not allow any further classification due to the lack of appropriate tissue samples. We found no evidence for an infection with the BSE agent in the cases under investigation. In none of the affected flocks, secondary cases were identified. A Bayesian prevalence calculation resulted in most likely estimates of one case of BSE, five cases of classical scrapie and 21 cases of atypical scrapie per 100'000 small ruminants. According to our models none of the TSEs is considered to cause a broader epidemic in Switzerland. In a closed population, they are rather expected to fade out in the next decades or, in case of a sporadic origin, may remain at a very low level.


In summary, these data indicate that despite a significant epidemic of BSE in cattle, there is no evidence that BSE established in the small ruminant population in Switzerland. Classical and atypical scrapie both occur at a very low level and are not expected to escalate into an epidemic. In this situation the extent of TSE surveillance in small ruminants requires reevaluation based on cost-benefit analysis.