May 25, 2011 (CIDRAP News) Animal health delegates meeting in Paris today declared that rinderpest, a highly contagious disease in cattle and other animals, is eradicated, marking the first time humans have snuffed out an animal disease in the wild.
The delegates, during the annual World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) conference, unanimously adopted a resolution that officially recognizes that all 198 countries that have animals susceptible to rinderpest are free of the disease, the OIE said in a press release.
Today's eradication declaration is only the second time humans have eliminated a disease. The first was smallpox in 1980.
Dr Bernard Vallat, the OIE's director-general, said in the statement that the eradication declaration is a historic event. "It's a major breakthrough, not only for science, but also for the cooperation policies amongst international organizations and with the international community as a whole," he said. He credited the world's veterinary community, which had faced tough obstacles, given that many affected countries had scarce resources for fighting the disease.
In October 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) set the stage for official eradication when it announced that animal health authorities were ending all field activities to control rinderpest. The virus doesn't infect humans, but the ancient disease has been considered a potential biological weapon because of its devastating effect on cattle and buffalo herds.
Over many centuries rinderpest outbreaks caused widespread famine and struck down millions of domestic and wild herds in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Though the disease never gained a foothold in the Americas, Australia, or New Zealand, veterinary experts worried about rinderpest's spread to the areas, because the regions' cattle herds are naïve to the virus.
Ann Tutwiler, FAO deputy director, said in the statement that eradicating rinderpest has been one of the FAO's top priorities. "With the eradication of the disease in live animals livestock production around the globe has become safer and the livelihoods of millions of livestock farmers are less at risk," she said. "There are important lessons to be learnt when it comes to defeating other animal diseases."
The FAO is expected to adopt a similar measure in June at its conference in Rome. It will also discuss a follow-up plan for maintaining rinderpest eradication.
Several labs still keep rinderpest virus stocks for vaccine production, so as a next step the OIE and FAO are preparing recommendations on limiting use of the virus only for vaccine research, in compliance with international biosecurity measures, the OIE said.
Rinderpest eradication efforts have been under way since 1989, when the OIE launched a system for countries to reach the disease-free status. The FAO's Global Rinderpest Eradication Program has also played a vital role in eliminating the disease.
May 25 OIE press release
Oct 14, 2010, CIDRAP News story "FAO: World on verge of rinderpest eradication"