Deadly cattle plague on the brink of eradication

Healthy cattle in Kenya. The last rinderpest outbreak occurred in Kenya eight years ago Copyright: Flickr/Steve Weaver

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[NAIROBI] Rinderpest, one of the deadliest cattle diseases, is set to become the first animal disease to be eradicated from the planet.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced last month (30 November) that it expects — along with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and other partners — to declare the disease wiped out in the next 18 months.

"This is a disease that has been an absolute scourge in agriculture for millennia ," said Juan Lubroth, the FAO’s chief veterinary officer. "We had the know-how. We had the vaccine. What was missing was adequate and targeted investment and a cohesive, global coordinating mechanism. Once we had those, solving the problem was just a matter of time."

Cattle plague, as rinderpest is also known, has killed millions of cows and other hoofed animals. It is caused by a virus and spreads through contact, and by water and food contaminated with the dung of infected animals. The disease can kill all infected animals in an outbreak, losing farmers money and food.

The impending eradication follows decades of intense campaigning and vaccination after the first vaccine was developed in 1960. In 1994 the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) was launched to plot the distribution of rinderpest and help countries earn disease-free status from the OIE by ensuring that the virus had been eradicated from their cattle.

By 2009, 170 countries and territories around the world had received certification, and the last outbreak occurred in Kenya eight years ago. Remaining control activities will be completed next year with increased monitoring, surveillance and periodic vaccination of animals in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, where the last outbreaks have been reported.

Some countries are yet to submit reports to the GREP secretariat, delaying the certification of rinderpest as an eradicated disease, Lubroth told SciDev.Net.

In the meantime, he said, all suspected cases of rinderpest — those that show similar clinical symptoms — must be investigated and their cause determined.

"There is always the possibility of a laboratory escape of the virus due to a breakdown in biosecurity [by human or mechanical error] or even deliberate introduction — but this is unlikely," said Lubroth.