ROME — The Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced an ambitious global effort that has brought the deadly cattle plague rinderpest to the brink of extinction is ending all field activities, which paves the way for official eradication of the disease. This would be the first time in history that humankind has succeeded in wiping out an animal disease in the wild, and only the second time, after smallpox in 1980, that a disease has been eliminated thanks to human efforts, FAO says.

Caused by a virus and spread by contact and contaminated materials, rinderpest has destroyed countless millions of cattle, buffalo, yaks and their wild relatives, with mortality rates in extreme cases reaching close to 100%.

Many centuries after it was first seen in Asia and Europe, rinderpest reached its height in the 1920s. At one time, the disease's footprint extended from Scandinavia to the Cape of Good Hope and from the Atlantic shore of Africa to the Philippine archipelago, with one outbreak reported in Brazil and another in Australia. In the early 1980s, rinderpest was still ravaging livestock herds around the world, with devastating epidemics hitting South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Losses in Nigeria in the 1980s totaled $2 billion.

Although rinderpest does not affect humans directly, its ability to cause swift, massive losses of cattle and other hoofed animals has led to devastating effects on agriculture for millennia, leaving famine and economic devastation in its wake.

"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," said Jacques Diouf, FAO director-general as ministers, animal-health experts and partners gathered in Rome on Oct. 13-14 to participate in a Global Rinderpest Eradication Symposium.

"The disease has affected Europe, Asia and Africa for centuries and has caused widespread famine and decimated millions of animals, both domestic and wild,” Diouf said. “In the 1880s, rinderpest caused losses of up to 1 million head of cattle in Russia and central Europe."

When rinderpest entered Africa in the 19th Century, it decimated millions of heads of livestock and wildlife and triggered widespread famine. It is estimated in that pandemic alone, up to one-third of the human population of Ethiopia died of starvation as a result. The last known outbreak of rinderpest occurred in 2001 in Kenya.

A joint FAO/World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) announcement of global rinderpest eradication is expected in mid-2011, pending a review of final official disease status reports from a handful of countries to OIE.