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Getting Rid of Rinderpest

  • Joe DeCapua

The deadly cattle disease – rinderpest – is on the verge of extinction. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is ending all field operations against the disease and is expected to officially announce its eradication next year.

Modibo Traoré, FAO’s assistant director-general, agriculture and consumer protection department, says, “Global coordination and inter-organizational cooperation has been fundamental in bringing us to the verge of achieving global eradication of an animal disease for the first time in history.”

Centuries old plague

Juan Lubroth, the FAO’s chief veterinary officer, says rinderpest has affected Europe, Asia and Africa for centuries, often leaving famine in its wake.

“Rinderpest, known as a cattle plague, was killer of a disease. Not only did it affect cattle, but also numerous wildlife. So, wherever that virus went through cattle would die in a matter of days – hundreds, thousands, millions of cattle and wildlife,” he says.

Eradication of the disease also bolsters food security efforts.

“It’s not only the loss of meat and milk,” he says, “it was also draft power and being able to till the soil and take the crops to market. I think by having had a good vaccine in eradicating rinderpest, from a food security point of view, this is a tremendous accomplishment.”

For example, when rinderpest entered Africa in the 19th century, it killed millions of livestock and wildlife. The FAO says during that pandemic alone, up to one-third of Ethiopia’s human population died of starvation.

In 1994, a rinderpest outbreak in northern Pakistan killed more than 50,000 cattle and buffalo before being brought under control.

Making it official

Lubroth says official eradication will be announced after a formal process.

“The eradication itself is an international agreement, and so we have to make sure that all the countries that are not recognized as rinderpest-free do so. And that will only occur in May 2011 with the World Organization for Animal Health,” he says.

The organization will certify that all countries are in compliance.

“So it’s only after that,” says Lubroth, “we’ll be able to say with certainty, with international recognition, that the world is free from rinderpest. I think we’ve already eradicated rinderpest, but we have to go through the international agreements to recognize each and every member country.”

In 1999, the World Food Prize was awarded to Der. Walter Plowright for development of the rinderpest vaccine.