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Beyond eradication - maintaining a rinderpest-free world

Local communities have been important partners in the bid to rid the world of rinderpest (© FAO/Tony Karumba)
Local communities have been important partners in the bid to rid the world of rinderpest
© FAO/Tony Karumba

The global eradication of rinderpest was officially declared on June 28th 2011, marking almost 300 years of collaborative efforts to eliminate the disease, known also as cattle plague. However, whilst the scientific and development community can congratulate themselves on this significant achievement - only the second disease to be eradicated after smallpox in humans - the virus remains in a number of laboratories around the world, under varying degrees of biosecurity

The socio-economic impact of rinderpest cannot be underestimated. Emerging over 1,500 years ago in Asia from the same family of viruses that causes measles in humans and the closely-related Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR), cattle plague recurred through the centuries, sweeping from Asia across Europe and making several incursions across the English Channel to Britain. On reaching the Horn of Africa at the end of the 19th Century, the disease rapidly spread throughout the continent, killing entire herds of livestock and wiping out millions of wild herbivores.

International collaboration

The last confirmed case of rinderpest was reported in Kenya in 2001 (© FAO/Tony Karumba)
The last confirmed case of rinderpest was reported in Kenya in 2001
© FAO/Tony Karumba

Widespread eradication efforts began in the early 1900s, and in 1924 the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) was established in response to rinderpest. In 1950, the Inter-African Bureau of Animal Resources (IBAR) was formed with the aim of eradicating the disease from Africa. Since its establishment in 1945, FAO has highlighted the importance of rinderpest prevention and control and in 1994, launched the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) to coordinate the definitive eradication of the disease and assist countries in gaining international recognition of rinderpest freedom from the OIE. The last confirmed case of rinderpest was reported in Kenya in 2001, and surveillance operations for the last ten years have failed to find any evidence of virus circulation, culminating in the declaration of global eradication.

A key partner in the eradication of rinderpest was the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which developed low-cost diagnostic testing kits for field use. The IAEA also provided the experts for training on how to use the diagnostic assay, known as Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA), to veterinary diagnostic laboratories and research centres, and the establishment of quality assurance mechanisms in laboratories. "Engagement and collaboration is essential to tackle complex problems like rinderpest eradication; it cannot be done alone," states Juan Lubroth, FAO chief veterinary officer. "And whilst we remember those involved in the science, we must not forget that the most important partners in this great achievement are the communities who have helped countries and international organisations accomplish the vision of a world free from rinderpest."

Rinderpest still a risk?

Cattle plague remains in laboratories worldwide (© FAO/Ishara Kodikara)
Cattle plague remains in laboratories worldwide
© FAO/Ishara Kodikara

However, whilst cattle plague no longer circulates in the wild, the virus remains in laboratories worldwide - and there is risk of a re-emergence so long as the virus continues to exist. Fewer vaccines are available to deal with such an outbreak and limiting the spread of the disease would depend on early detection, a coordinated rapid response and sufficient funding. "Rinderpest has been officially declared eradicated, but that certainly doesn't mean it can be filed away as a closed case," says Lubroth. "We are working with our partners, the OIE and the IAEA, to draw attention to the needs for a post-eradication strategy. Essentially, it's a strategy to ensure that this disease remains eradicated."

Countries that have virus samples in their national or regional laboratories will need assistance in disposing of those samples safely, or to transport them securely to a limited number of biosecure facilities. However, samples of rinderpest virus will be preserved securely under proper laboratory conditions, as are the few protected samples of smallpox, as a resource to develop new vaccines or for future research. Rinderpest vaccine stocks will also need to be kept in case of an emergency should a an outbreak - natural or deliberate - occur.

A post-eradication strategy

There are a limited number of biosecure facilities (© FAO/Tony Karumba)
There are a limited number of biosecure facilities
© FAO/Tony Karumba

Six regional meetings convened by FAO in May/June 2011 provided an opportunity for countries to discuss their concerns in managing rinderpest and in complying with international agreements. Most countries have little interest in keeping wild virus and vaccine seed stocks and have requested FAO/OIE guidelines for destroying remaining virus stocks. Countries acknowledge that it is critical to maintain awareness of the disease and that a post-eradication strategy is essential for emergency planning and preparedness.

"The established structures and tools for monitoring and reporting rinderpest need to be maintained," Lubroth continues. "These mechanisms can also serve for early warning against any number of animal diseases, which are in fact increasing as a result of globalisation, environmental encroachment, and increased number of humans and animal populations."

A further recommendation would be to ensure that veterinary and public health curricula continue to cover rinderpest as an example of collaborative regional and global coordination, so that the lessons learned from bringing about the end of the disease are not forgotten.

Date published: November 2011


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