Intensive surveillance and vaccination campaign checks rinderpest epidemic in East Africa

The rinderpest epidemic that spread over the border from Kenya to Tanzania early this year and threatened to engulf Serengeti National Park has been contained by a massive surveillance and vaccination campaign in both East African countries. The vaccination drive was described as one of the most concentrated campaigns ever undertaken in recent years against the deadly cattle plague. It was organized by the national veterinary authorities in Tanzania and Kenya, in close collaboration with the Organization for African Unity Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (OAU/IBAR) and supported by a joint FAO/United Nations Development Programme project for Emergency Control of Rinderpest, a similar project by the European Union in Tanzania and by emergency projects in Kenya, funded and technically supported by FAO and the EU in 1997 and 1998.

Rinderpest is a highly contagious and potentially lethal disease that affects cattle and other cloven-hoofed animals, such as buffalo and goats, as well as some wildlife species. Its eradication on a global scale is the aim of FAO's Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP), part of the Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases (EMPRES). In Africa, GREP is implemented through a regional programme known as the Pan African Rinderpest Campaign (PARC), which is coordinated by OAU/IBAR and funded mainly by the European Union. The investment in PARC by the EU alone over the last 10 years is estimated at $120 million.



Distribution of rinderpest in northern Tanzania in 1997 and in southern Kenya in 1996

In February of this year, FAO classified this latest outbreak of the disease as a disaster and launched an appeal for a multidonor emergency trust fund to tackle the epidemic. A first round of vaccinations was initiated immediately in an effort to create a containment zone, beyond which the virus would not spread. Some 1.3 million cattle in Kenya and 2 million in Tanzania were immunized before heavy rains in April and May brought the campaign to a halt.

A second round of vaccinations started in June and will run until mid-August. In Tanzania, some 3.5 million doses of vaccine have been provided to cover cattle in the affected area and those in surrounding areas considered to be at risk. The vaccine was donated by the European Union (2.5 million doses), the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran (0.5 million doses) and FAO/UNDP (0.5 million doses).

"There haven't been any new cases of rinderpest reported since the end of May," said Mark Rweyemamu, Senior Officer in FAO's Infectious Diseases Group (Animal Production and Health Division). "We believe the disease is under control, but we will not know for sure until September or October." He spoke of the second round of vaccinations as "a mopping up exercise to wipe out remaining pockets of enemy resistance".

It is vital to control the outbreak on three fronts:

  • to prevent it infecting the wildlife in Serengeti National Park;
  • to stop it spreading into southern Tanzania, where animals have not been vaccinated;
  • to prevent it spreading north towards Nairobi and high livestock production areas.

Rweyemamu said that it is one of the most concentrated vaccination campaigns against rinderpest in recent years: "What we're sure of is that the action taken is effective action, seriously undertaken on both sides of the Kenya-Tanzania border."

Intensive surveillance is now necessary to detect further outbreaks. The task is complicated by the fact that the strain of the virus involved - which has been called "low-profile" rinderpest - does not cause typical symptoms and is therefore often not recognized by farmers. A Surveillance Training Programme for local veterinary and laboratory staff will boost the effectiveness of routine patrols and emergency preparedness.

Surveillance will have to continue well into 1998, with local veterinary staff patrolling villages on a monthly basis and responding immediately to reports from the field of suspected cases of rinderpest. Experts have also stressed that surveillance of wildlife - which is not covered under the current project - is vital if an accurate map of rinderpest in Tanzania is to be drawn. Rweyemamu explained that it is impossible to vaccinate wildlife, so if the rinderpest virus were to leak into Serengeti, "it would devastate the wildlife and the national veterinary services of the two countries would be bogged down with expensive vaccination of cattle in the surrounding areas for another five years before the virus dies out". And this, he added, "would be a serious setback for GREP".

22 July 1997

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