ROME — Rinderpest, one of the most devastating animal diseases, will be officially declared eradicated within the next 18 months by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (F.A.O.), World Organization for Animal Health (O.I.E.) and other partners. This will mark the first time in history that humanity has succeeded in killing an animal disease and only the second time a disease has been eradicated as a result of human efforts — the first was smallpox, in 1980.
This predication comes after an intense decades-long campaign — spearheaded by F.A.O. and involving a broad alliance of partners — to isolate rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, in its last few remaining pockets and then eliminate it, once and for all.
Although rinderpest does not affect humans directly, it is lethal to cattle and hoofed animals. Death rates during outbreaks can approach 100%. Caused by a virus and spread by contact and contaminated materials, rinderpest has destroyed millions of cattle, buffalo, yaks and their wild relatives, causing major economic losses and contributing to famine and social unrest for thousands of years. At its height in the 1920s, the rinderpest 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, the disease was still infecting 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. A 1994 outbreak in northern Pakistan wiped out more than 50,000 cattle and buffalo before being brought under control with help from F.A.O.
Like highly pathogenic avian influenza of the H5N1 variety or the pandemic H1N1/2009 flu virus today, rinderpest seemed unstoppable. Starting in the late 1980s, the F.A.O. convened a series of regular meetings involving animal health authorities from around the globe, as well key international organizations like O.I.E. and the African Union's Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources.
In 1994, the Global Rinderpest Eradication Program (G.R.E.P.) was launched. With F.A.O. acting as the coordinating Secretariat and involving a large group of partner governments, agencies and organizations, G.R.E.P. initially focused on charting out the true geographical distribution of rinderpest, getting a better understanding of rinderpest's epidemiology, and helping countries cope with emergency situations. Phase two involved targeted action at the local level where the virus was in circulation.
The Joint F.A.O./I.A.E.A. division in Vienna worked to develop and then transfer new rinderpest diagnostic technology to developing countries. G.R.E.P., O.I.E. and F.A.O./I.A.E.A. developed performance indicators to assess the campaign's progress. In the face of this cohesive effort, slowly but surely rinderpest began to retreat.
Now G.R.E.P.'s focus is assisting countries in trying to establish the rinderpest pathogen is fully eradicated in their animal populations in order to earn a disease-free status from O.I.E., the international certification body for animal diseases.