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Press Release 99/33

UN agency warns the cattle plague could lead to severe economic losses should it begin to spread again

Rome, 2 June 1999.- Despite tremendous progress towards global rinderpest eradication in recent years, failure to wipe out the few remaining pockets of the deadly cattle disease, also known as cattle plague, could result in its widespread resurgence , the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today.

FAO called on donors to provide "immediate support" for rinderpest eradication programmes to prevent the disease from making a comeback in countries where rinderpest was recently eliminated.

If global eradication is successful, it will be the first animal disease to be eradicated from the world. This would be one of the greatest achievements ever in veterinary science, according to FAO.

Animal health officials suspect that cattle plague persists in only three isolated areas of the world: southern Sudan, southern Somalia and parts of Pakistan. However, they say there are three other areas where the disease has occurred within the last five years and where there is no conclusive evidence that it has been eliminated. These are the far eastern Russian Federation, the southern Arabian Peninsula, and the Kurdish area along the border between Turkey and Iraq.

Experts estimate that it could cost as little as $3 million to eradicate rinderpest from each of the remaining pockets through focussed control action, including intensive vaccination.

Rinderpest, a highly contagious disease of ruminants caused by paramyxovirus (genus Morbillivirus), is characterized by fever, focal erosive lesions in the mouth and throughout the alimentary tract, by severe diarrhoea and a high fatality rate.

For centuries, it has caused pandemics that killed millions of cattle, buffalo, yaks and their wild relatives in many parts of the world. In the 1970s and the 1980s, there were devastating epidemics in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In 1994, rinderpest spread into northern Pakistan killing more than 50,000 cattle and buffalo before being brought under control.

Rinderpest not only kills cattle, but it also has a devastating impact on rural incomes, livestock production and ultimately on food security. Losses include wild animals, which can be of great importance to many rural economies. In addition to these losses, affected countries are often excluded from world markets by animal health import restrictions.

The cost to control rinderpest has been high for both developing countries and the donor community. The European Commission alone has invested around $200 million to support rinderpest control programmes in Asia and Africa in the last 10 years.

According to experts, the cost of eradication for most countries would be far less than the cost of continued vaccination programs and control and surveillance measures. When any individual country eradicates rinderpest from its own territory, it is in a position to replace mass-vaccination with emergency preparedness and early warning systems applicable to all epidemic diseases.

"As the world is nearly rinderpest free, urgent global action is needed to ensure that the disease can be eliminated in the remaining infected areas. Failure to act now will mean running the risk that outbreaks of the disease will result in a much higher price tag in the future. For example, in Nigeria, in the early 1980s, rinderpest was responsible for losses estimated at $2 billion," FAO expert Mark Rweyemamu said.

An expert consultation recently held at FAO under the aegis of FAO's Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases (EMPRES) noted that transboundary animal diseases have become of increasing economic and food security importance in developing and developed countries. Experts point to examples such as the devastating epidemics of rinderpest in Asia, the Middle East and Africa in the 1980s, classical swine fever epidemics in the Netherlands and Germany in 1996-97, and African swine fever in West Africa and Madagascar in 1995-99.

The expert consultation endorsed a plan for FAO to assist member countries in developing their own national early warning systems for rinderpest and other transboundary animal diseases. FAO's technical assistance includes training and computer software for disease surveillance at national, regional and global levels.


For further information, please consult FAO web site
or call FAO's media branch (Pierre Antonios, tel.: 0039.06.57053473; email:

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©FAO, 1999