Within the next 18 months, one of the most devastating animal diseases ever is expected to be declared eradicated.
Rinderpest has been around for thousands of years. The viral infection – while not directly affecting humans – is lethal to cattle, buffalo and other hoofed animals.
It would be the first time in history that humankind has succeeded in killing off an animal disease,” says the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.” “It’s only the second time a disease has been eradicated as a result of human efforts, the first being smallpox.
Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer for the FAO, is taking part in a meeting on Rinderpest this week in Rome.
“Historically, it’s been responsible for millions of deaths among cattle and wildlife on three continents -- Asia, Europe, Africa. So this particular virus has decimated populations for millennia,” he says.
A decades long campaign
The FAO says Rinderpest was first brought into Europe from Asia. Outbreaks were recorded during the Roman Empire in AD 376-386. It says there’s some evidence this contributed to the empire’s collapse.
The disease is also blamed for famine in France in the 1700s and may have contributed to food shortages leading up to the French Revolution.
It took a concerted effort to tackle the disease.
“Through regional efforts and through national efforts coming up with some tools that proved to be quite valuable,” says Lubroth.
This includes the development of the Rinderpest vaccine. “One shot will protect the animals for life. So having this as a tool proved to be a tremendous asset,” he says.
He adds, “The only way to progressively control it and eradicate it is to have country-country collaboration and build up trust.”
Could eradication be delayed similar to polio?
In 2005, polio cases around the world dropped to only a handful of cases. It was hoped the disease could be declared eradicated. That hasn’t happened. There was a resurgence of the polio virus in the following years, in part because some regions failed to follow through with immunization programs. Some feared the vaccine was unsafe. As a result, the strain of the virus found in Nigeria eventually found its way across the continent to Ethiopia. But could a similar problem occur with Rinderpest?
“I would say the same thing has happened with Rinderpest. The last outbreak was 2001, but let’s say (in) the five years previous to 2001, we did have the trickling of evidence because the vaccine was not being applied correctly or control programs did not occur,” says Lubroth.
That led to a few outbreaks.
The FAO played a coordinating role in the campaign to get rid of Rinderpest. It worked with various agencies, organizations and donors. Lubroth says this was “critical” for controlling the disease.