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Animal diseases and veterinary public-health (VPH) problems constitute a major constraint to livestock production and safe utilization of animal products worldwide. This paper describes the serious socio-economic consequences, which include production losses, loss of livelihoods, poverty, food insecurity, restriction of marketing opportunities, disincentives to investment and public-health risks. The most vulnerable groups, for whom animal diseases are particularly devastating, are poor livestock farmers and farming communities.

There has been a resurgence of serious infectious livestock diseases and veterinary public-health problems throughout the world; this trend is likely to continue in the future. There is in addition the challenge of new diseases and new manifestations of existing diseases, the result of changing epidemiological circumstances and changing livestock husbandry and trading patterns. Whilst this is a major challenge for developed and developing countries alike, developing countries are particularly vulnerable. The livelihoods and health of poor livestock farmers and farming communities in such countries are under severe threat.

The 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, therefore, recognizing the need for sustained agricultural production and increased liberalized trade on the one hand and the threat of infectious animal disease epidemics on the other, committed world governments and civil society to:

Seek to ensure effective prevention and progressive control of plant and animal pests and diseases, including especially those which are of transboundary nature, such as rinderpest, cattle tick, foot-and-mouth disease and desert locust, where outbreaks can cause major food shortages, destabilize markets and trigger trade measures, and concurrently promote regional collaboration in plant-pest and animal-disease control and the widespread development and use of integrated pest-management practices.

Endemic, production-limiting diseases are continually present. They are less dramatic but tend nonetheless to make livestock farmers vulnerable to external shocks, which keep them in poverty. Diseases and conditions such as high neonatal mortality, suboptimal birth rates and mastitis reinforce the vicious circle of poverty, because livestock assets do not grow and products for home consumption or sale are not harvested. VPH programmes are often absent in rural areas. Rural dwellers are at high risk for zoonotic diseases because of their continual close contact with their livestock. In some rural populations, the occurrence of diseases such as brucellosis, hydatid disease and other intestinal parasitic diseases is higher than in any other population.

The situation is exacerbated because of declining institutional and other capabilities in many countries to meet increasing problems of animal health and VPH. The paper discusses how national animal-health services may be strengthened, with particular emphasis on policies and delivery systems that will give poor farmers better access to animal-health services, and how innovative tools and solutions may be developed to improve animal health and support poor livestock farmers.

Animal health is directly related to levels of production and safe trade. With demand for animal products set to increase dramatically over the next two decades, producers may benefit through increased trade opportunities. The extent to which producers in poor countries will share these benefits will depend on the production levels they are able to achieve and whether or not their products are accepted as tradable commodities. Animal diseases are important factors in this process.

The Animal Production and Health Division (AGA) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a leading role in driving change to support improved animal health and VPH for poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods. Proposals are made whereby AGA resources may be used to carry out this vital function, fostering global improvement in animal health and public health.

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