In June 2011, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization officially declared that the deadly animal disease rinderpest had been eradicated. The disease devastated livestock and lingered in Africa long after being eliminated in developed countries. But while a vaccine put a halt to rinderpest, eradication would not have occurred nearly as quickly without the help of nomadic herders.
Rinderpest was the first animal disease to be eliminated globally -- and only the second disease overall to be eradicated after smallpox.
“It’s a very severe disease. The name translated into English is cattle plague. The way that it actually appears is as a diarrheal disease where the animals essentially dehydrate and die in about the course of a week. And it can cause up to 90 percent death loss in herds,” said Jeffrey Mariner, a research scientist at International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi and inventor of the temperature-stable rinderpest vaccine.
Rinderpest had been around for centuries before Europeans inadvertently brought it Africa in 1887. Over the next decade it spread across much of the continent, causing many deaths from starvation in Ethiopia.
While there were several early vaccines, the key vaccine was developed in 1960 by Walter Plowright, who received the World Food Prize for his work.
Mariner said, “It was a phenomenal vaccine. It protected against all types of rinderpest. It protected for life for the animals with a single immunization. There was never any recorded adverse reaction. And that actually spurred a lot of attempts to eradicate the disease and one called JP15, which ultimately almost succeeded, but they just stopped a few years too soon.”
The only problem with the vaccine was that it had to be kept cold before use. Mariner and his colleagues began working on the heat stability of the vaccine in the late 80’s and solved the problem by 1990.
“We took that Plowright vaccine, that very good vaccine, whose only shortcoming was that it needed to be refrigerated, and we made it so it didn’t need refrigeration. It could be used in the field much more flexibly, and that allowed us to set up vaccination programs for places like South Sudan and these very remote areas in eastern Africa,” he said.
But Mariner and others realized it would take more than veterinary professionals to immunize all the animals at risk. So they went to local pastoralist communities. Mariner says formal government institutions did not reach remote rural areas.
“What we found when we went to work in those areas was that they had a very well-developed knowledge of animal health. They had names for all the major diseases, could describe them. They knew a lot about treatments, which medicines to use for which disease. There might be a lack of information on correct dosage and things. So we engaged in a process of learning from them about their knowledge systems - and then integrating certain Western medical concepts and training them how to vaccinate and how to deliver antibiotics, as well, for other problems,” he said.
He said since they couldn’t read or write, all instruction was done orally.
“What was very rewarding is just to see how much interest, you know, this was the most exciting thing that they could learn about for them because they are cattle-dependent people. So they paid very close attention. Mixing up a vaccine and following all the rules for its use, they were very much motivated to do that well and were very good students,” said Mariner.
So good, that they did just as well or better than those from the veterinary services.
“They were essentially responsible for locating and eradicating the final outbreaks of rinderpest in East Africa. And it couldn’t have been done without them,” he said.
The same concept may be used to help eradicate what’s called small ruminant plague, which is closely related to rinderpest. However, it affects sheep and goats. Mariner says the vaccine for the plague has now been made so it too no longer needs refrigeration. What’s more, the pastoralist model may also be applied to rabies.
He said the success of the rinderpest eradication effort proved that African communities are more than able to take on such jobs.