Global effort leads to the biggest victory in veterinary history

The Rinderpest virus
The Rinderpest virus. (Picture Rajnish Kaushik)

Scientists are confident that the acute viral disease rinderpest, that has devastated cattle and their keepers for thousands of years, has been eradicated world-wide.

The eradication is being heralded as the biggest achievement in veterinary history and is expected to save countless lives in some of the poorest countries of the world.

The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation has suspended efforts to track the disease and expects to make an official announcement that the virus has been wiped off the face of the planet at the World Organisation for Animal Health meeting in May next year.

It will be only the second time in history that a devastating viral disease has been eradicated, the first being the human disease smallpox in 1980.

In its progress report on the global effort to eradicate rinderpest, released in October, the FAO said the dreaded virus was now believed to be extinct.

The last known outbreak occurred in 2001 in Kenya. In 2006 vaccinations for the virus stopped and field operations ceased earlier this year.

Australia has been free of the disease for more than eighty years after an outbreak involving 28 cattle herds near Fremantle in Western Australia was brought under control in 1923.

In that outbreak, believed to have originated from infected pigs loaded as stores in an Asian port, infected cattle were brought to Fremantle from the northwest port of Derby. The disease was quickly eradicated by the slaughter of all susceptible livestock within a 2.5km radius of infected premises and through effective quarantine measures. It has never been recorded again in Australia.

The 1920s was the worst decade for the disease with its footprint extending from Scandinavia to the Cape of Good Hope and from the Atlantic shore of Africa to the Philippine archipelago, with one outbreak in Australia and another in Brazil.

Rinderpest is an acute viral disease that effects mainly cattle and buffaloes. It is characterised by inflammation and necrosis of mucus membranes and has a very high mortality rate. It is related to viruses that cause canine distemper and human measles and is spread through exhaled droplets and the faeces of infected animals.

The disease has caused massive losses to livestock and wildlife over three continents. It resulted in cattle plagues that triggered several famines and caused a loss of draught animal power in agricultural communities in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the FAO progress report said.

The global effort to rid the world of the disease was launched in 1994 under the title Global Rinderpest Eradication Program (GREP), spearheaded by the FAO. The aim was to move towards disease eradication by consolidating the gains that had been made in controlling the virus.

The international efforts included the setting up of the Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases (EMPRES) and technical support. From its outset the GREP program sought to have the disease eradicated by 2010.

Using the FAO/ International Atomic Energy Agency’s joint division in Vienna, set up in the 1980’s, the program tapped into a network of laboratory scientists around the world. The joint effort facilitated a dramatic improvement in information gathering, laboratory proficiency, disease monitoring and vaccination efficacy.

FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said controlling the disease had always been a priority for the FAO.

“The disease has affected Europe, Asia and Africa for centuries and has caused widespread famine and decimated millions of animals, both domestic and wild. In the 1880s, rinderpest caused losses of up to one million head of cattle in Russia and central Europe,” he said.

Diouf said that when the virus entered Africa in the 19th century, it killed millions of livestock and wildlife and triggered widespread famine. “It is estimated that in that pandemic alone, up to one-third of the human population of Ethiopia died of starvation as a result.”

The FAO said in its progress report: “Though the effort to eradicate rinderpest has encountered many obstacles over the past several decades, the disease remains undetected in the field since 2001.

“As of mid 2010, FAO is confident that the rinderpest virus has been eliminated from Europe, Asia, Middle East, Arabian Peninsula and Africa. This has been a remarkable achievement for veterinary science, evidence of the commitment of numerous countries, and a victory for the international community.”


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