Tuesday, 19 October 2010
Still guessing? Last week, UN scientists told the world that the “cattle plague”, or rinderpest as it is more formally known, has been eradicated. In Africa, where the disease has been all too visible in the memories of many living today, there must surely be a huge sigh of relief.
After all, we are talking about the virus that ravaged chunks of continents, decimating cattle populations to such a severe extent that one could walk through the bush for miles, stumbling across nothing but the fetid remains of once strong herds.
The then British colonial administrator to northern Nigeria, F.J.D. Lugard, wrote in 1893 that: “never before in the memory of man, or by the voice of tradition, have the cattle died in such numbers.” A Masai is recorded with speaking a poetic observation: the corpses of cattle and people were “so many and so close that the vultures had forgotten to fly.”
In the African rinderpest pandemic of the nineteenth century, it is estimated that as much as one third of the human population in Ethiopia died due to starvation caused by dying cattle. And in the early 1980s, rinderpest was back. The losses to livestock herds in Nigeria alone totalled an incredible US$2billion.
Michael Baron of the Instutute for Animal Health (IAH) said: “there has never been such an important and devastating disease as rinderpest in livestock.”
Yep, rinderpest has been a miniature monster in its more than one and a half millennia of recorded history; a microscopic scourge that has scythed its way through cloven hoofed animals like an insatiable sidekick to the Grim Reaper himself.
According to the IAE, the rinderpest virus belongs to a group that contains the measles virus. It not only affects (or should that be affected?) cattle and buffalo but also grows in animals such as giraffe, eland, wildebeest, kudu and various antelopes. It is “one of the oldest and most devastating diseases of cattle, buffalo and other bovines.” The mortality rate is cited as being 80 to 90%.
In 1950, the Inter-Africa Bureau of Epizootic Diseases was formed with the intention of eradicating rinderpest from the continent and in the 1960s a programme called JP15 attempted to vaccinate all cattle in participating countries.
It nearly worked: by 1979, only one of the countries involved – Sudan – reported any cases of the disease.
But the 1980s saw an infamous pandemic that killed millions of cattle.
The Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) was initiated that decade. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN: “in close association with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), GREP was conceived as an international co-ordination mechanism to promote the global eradication of rinderpest and verification of freedom from rinderpest, while providing technical guidance to achieve these goals.
Scientists at the IAH at Pirbright, UK, with support from the UK’s Department for International Development, helped to develop a simple test, similar to a pregnancy test, to discover if cattle were infected. The idea was the kit could be used by local people with very little formal training, giving results in minutes. Any infected cattle would then be destroyed, helping curb the virus’ spread.
Dr John Anderson from the IAH said: “For too long people have been involved in controlling diseases and not actually dreaming that it’s possible to eradicate a disease from the world. And with rinderpest we did.”
The OIE is expected to issue a formal announcement on the eradication next year. They have to first check that the disease is not still lying in some outback pocket. If it clarifies success, rinderpest will become the first animal disease ever to be eliminated by humans and only the second disease in history, after smallpox in 1979.
Jacques Diouf, of the FAO, said: “The extraordinary success of this programme would not have been possible without the united efforts and determined commitments of the governments of all affected and exposed countries, without the African Union’s Inter-African Bureau on Animal Resources and the responsible regional organisations, without the donor agencies committed to this endeavour.” He added, with empowering optimism: “Together we have defeated rinderpest. Together we are stronger. Together we will defeat hunger.”