Deadly cattle plague on brink of extinction, UN agency reports

Rinderpest is capable of wiping out entire herds of cattle within days

14 October 2010 – A deadly cattle plague will soon be officially eradicated, marking the first time in history that human efforts have successfully wiped out an animal disease in the wild, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported today.

Thanks to an ambitious global effort, the campaign to eliminate rinderpest is drawing to a close.

Smallpox is the only other disease eradicated by human efforts, FAO said.

Although rinderpest does not directly affect humans, its ability to cause swift, massive losses of cattle and other hoofed animals has wreaked havoc on agriculture for millennia, resulting in famine and economic destruction.

When the plague hit Africa in the 19th century, it decimated millions of heads of livestock and wildlife, triggering widespread hunger. It is estimated that one-third of all people in Ethiopia died of starvation due to the pandemic.

In the 1880s, up to one million head of cattle in Russia and Central Europe were decimated by the plague.

It reached its peak in the 1920s, and at one time, its footprint extended from Scandinavia to the Cape of Good Hope and from Africa’s Atlantic shore to the Philippine archipelago. Outbreaks have also been reported in Brazil and Australia.

The last known outbreak of rinderpest occurred in Kenya in 2001.

“The control and elimination of rinderpest has always been a priority for the Organization since its early days in its mission to defeat hunger and strengthen global food security,” FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf told ministers, animal health experts and others gathered in Rome for a two-day Global Rinderpest Eradication Symposium.

A joint announcement by FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) on the eradication of rinderpest is expected in mid-2011, pending a review of final official disease status reports.

FAO spearheaded a coordinated, global effort to study the plague to help farmers and others recognize and control the disease, implement vaccination campaigns and ultimately eradicate it.

“Together we have defeated rinderpest,” Mr. Diouf said.

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