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Faces behind rinderpest eradication

Ending the plague, improving lives


Alain Vandersmissen Credit: © FAOThe decades-long campaign to eradicate rinderpest, an ancient cattle plague, has underscored the crucial link between animal health and human well-being. In this interview, Alain Vandersmissen, External Relations, European Commission, talks about EU support for the fight against the disease, most recently under FAO’s Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme:


Q: As a veterinarian, you’ve worked on animal health and production projects in Asia and Africa. Why has fighting rinderpest been such a great priority for the EU ?

A: Rinderpest really is a pest. It’s a disease that can have a huge impact globally and on every nation. And as you know, diseases do not know borders. So it’s in the well-understood interest of everybody to try to control and eradicate rinderpest in any country that can help the transmission to other countries. A second strong argument is that fighting Rinderpest is at the same time fighting poverty in many developing countries.


Q: How much support has the European Union given to the overall global eradication of rinderpest, both in monetary and organizational terms?

A: At the initial stage of the EU response, we have funded some projects called vertical, that means on rinderpest only, specifically in Africa, but we soon came to fund more comprehensive programmes that were addressing strengthening veterinary services as a whole, which means targeting various animal diseases at the same time, including rinderpest. Since the late 1960’s, the European Commission has invested or granted approximately Euro 340 million in rinderpest control. And if you take the member states in addition to that, we are close to Euro 400 million for the EU as a whole.


Q: What will the commitment of the EU be in the post-eradication period?

A: There is an immediate step to take control of the situation after eradication. This is the reason why we granted FAO an amount of roughly Euro 2 700 000, in order to do two things: The first one is to be absolutely sure that there are no remnants of rinderpest virus anywhere, and, in case there were to be found, somewhere, a last surprise pocket, to control and to clean it immediately. So that is something we are contributing to, with FAO. But a second thing is to continue to work on animal diseases in general, not only rinderpest. Nowadays this is more and more taking place under the broader approach of One Health – addressing health risks at the interface between animals, humans and ecosystems.


Q:  Many people are not aware that rinderpest has figured heavily in the history of Europe as well.

A: In the 13th century already, when Gengis Khan, a Mongol emperor, was invading Europe, his troops brought their cattle with them, and that cattle was infected, and they were infecting all the countries they were conquering.

There is evidence that in the 18th century – only in one decade, ten years – more than 200 million cattle died from rinderpest in Europe. So that gives the dimension only for that continent.

In 1920, there was a big accident of rinderpest in Europe. A ship transiting in Belgium, sailing from India with cattle being exported to Brazil, stopped in Antwerp harbour a few days. The animals were off-loaded and very rapidly, 300 farms were infected with rinderpest. So that scared really Europe and it scared, especially, the veterinary services. The outbreak was eliminated, but the interesting thing is that it also was the triggering factor for creating, in 1924, the OIE, or World Organisation for Animal Health, which was set-up initially by 28 countries as a follow up to that incident.


The Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme is an international coordination mechanism spearheaded by FAO, in close association with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).