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January 04, 2010

Cattle rinderpest disease now a thing of the past, declares FAO

by Paul Virgo

An animal 'black death' that has devastated livestock around the world for thousands of years, causing famine and untold human misery, is about to be permanently consigned to the history books.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is confident that rinderpest is beaten after being at the centre of efforts to wipe out a disease that had seemed unstoppable for much of the 20th century and it expects the official declaration of its extinction to arrive next year.

Rinderpest is a virus affecting cattle, buffalo, yaks and hoofed wild animals that spreads through contact and contaminated materials and has death rates during outbreaks of up to 100 percent.

Although humans cannot contract the fast-spreading disease, also known as cattle plague, its effects on sources of food and income mean it has frequently been as lethal for people as for animals.

"I'd say this feat is comparable to the eradication of smallpox in humans," said Juan Lubroth, FAO's chief veterinary officer. "It's only the second time a pathogen has been removed from the face of the earth by human efforts (after the eradication of smallpox was declared in 1980). It was a devastating problem. Infected animals die a very miserable death within seven days. If you have a herd of 100 animals or of 1,000 animals, they'll all be dead. Millions and million of wildlife and cattle died in short periods of time… This is a disease that has been an absolute scourge in agriculture for millennia."

The Rome-based FAO says outbreaks of rinderpest were documented in ancient Roman times and food shortages created by recurring epidemics in the 18th century contributed to the unrest that led to the French Revolution in 1789.

The disease peaked in the 1920s, when it extended from Scandinavia to Africa and the Philippines in Asia, with outbreaks in Brazil and Australia too.

Despite the development of a powerful vaccine, epidemics still hit South Asia, the Middle East and Africa in the 1980s.

"In Nigeria in 1983 and 1985-86, they lost more than half a million head of cattle, with losses of almost three billion U.S. dollars," said Dr. Walter N. Masiga, the former director of the African Union's Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (IBAR).

"From that one example you can see the impact. Many Africans live off livestock. Their livestock is a mobile bank (as it is their main asset), it is their food and it is their revenue. When you remove livestock from some pastoral groups in Africa, you kill them."

The problem was that, while some countries carried out effective vaccination programmes, the disease survived in pockets in others and was able to break out again from them with devastating consequences.

In response, the FAO launched the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme in 1994 with other bodies, including IBAR and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), to coordinate national and regional activities and forge them into a systematic global campaign against the disease.

The programme charted cattle plague's distribution, trained farmers to identify it, provided technical assistance for monitoring schemes and established emergency response plans to smother outbreaks.

Blow by blow the disease was gradually weakened up to the point that it now lies dead and buried. The last outbreak occurred in Kenya in 2001. "There is no rinderpest today in the wild," Lubroth said.

"We had set a deadline of 2010. However, there is an international system of recognition for rinderpest freedom done in partnership with the OIE, where countries that want to be recognised as being free have to submit a dossier and some countries are lagging behind in this process. But we are certainly shooting at 2011 for the declaration of its eradication."

The FAO estimates that defeating rinderpest generated as much as 289 billion dollars in revenue from additional agricultural output in India alone between 1965 and 1998, while African nations and countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey have also reaped massive benefits.

"The protection of cattle in sub-Saharan Africa, the Near East and Asia has improved both food and income streams for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pastoral people and small farmers and helped avoid famine and the loss of draught power in agricultural communities," said the FAO's Felix Njeumi.

Agriculture in developing countries still faces many threats, above all the effects of climate change.

But the FAO says that at least farmers in poorer parts of the world now have one less problem to worry about. Furthermore, the experience gained from fighting rinderpest can be used to address other dangers.

"There are other diseases that are quite problematic, and not only these trans-boundary, high-impact diseases. There are also some chronic problems such as parasitism," Lubroth said.

"These have impacts on the efficiency of production, so that an animal needs more energy to survive and the milk quality may not be the same. If we talk about poultry diseases, less eggs are laid. (These are) diseases that have impacts on food availability and food security.

"We are already using the experience from rinderpest so that we have clusters of countries working to solve a common problem. It's important - networks of laboratories, regional economic communities coming together with the international organisations to have the vision to be able to work together to progressively eliminate a pathogen."

It is also important that states live up to the pledge made at last month's U.N. Summit on Food Security to reverse the long-running decline in agricultural investment, so some of this money can be devoted to defending livestock.

"Most certainly, lack of investment is a major obstacle," Lubroth added. "For example, we still do not have a vaccine for a high-impact disease like Africa swine fever, which is a big problem in Africa and appears to be a big problem in Eastern Europe now too, with outbreaks in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia and it will possibly extend into other parts of Europe and Asia.

"The vaccine companies have their profit margins, so who is going to invest in an African swine fever vaccine? Over the last 20 years, I've not been able to find someone who has listened to me (about this)."


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