ROME – The rapid spread of peste des petits ruminants (PPR), a virulent livestock disease of goats and sheep, is wreaking havoc in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The FAO has mobilized emergency support for the DRC where the disease is threatening food security and could potentially spread to southern African countries that have never been exposed to the disease, FAO said. Peste des petits ruminants has killed 75,000 goats and tens of thousands more are infected. Another 1 million goats and 600,000 sheep are at risk of contracting the disease, according to FAO. PPR is caused by a virus similar to measles in humans and rinderpest in cattle.

"This is the worst livestock epidemic in the country in more than 10 years," said Ndiaga Gueye, the FAO representative in DRC. "We're seeing that in response to the threat of their animals contracting the disease, farmers are moving their animals away from infected villages to where so far there have been no disease outbreaks, which has been spreading the virus to healthy flocks of animals."

The FAO emergency response will provide funds for:

• Vaccinating 500,000 sheep and goats in unaffected areas;
• Limiting animal movements by preventing them from moving to communal grazing areas and temporarily interrupting sale and transport of animals;
• Raising awareness via rural radio and village-level meetings to educate farmers about steps they can take to prevent PPR;
• Increasing active surveillance for PPR throughout the area;
• Training of field veterinarians and para-veterinarians in the recognition of PPR and field investigation techniques.

The DRC is believed to have been infected since 2008, when the provinces of Bas-Congo and Kinshasa both reported outbreaks. Neighboring countries, like Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Kenya and Tanzania, are affected by the disease, and some areas are considered to be endemic. Vaccines are available to protect small ruminants from PPR, and can be a key weapon in combating the disease.