ROME, 20 November 2002 -- Recent progress in eradicating rinderpest - one of the world's most devastating livestock diseases - risks being reversed as the rinderpest virus threatens to break out of its last stronghold in northeastern Kenya and southern Somalia, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned today.

While human beings cannot catch rinderpest, by killing entire herds that belong to small-scale dairy farmers or tribal herders who depend utterly on cattle for their food and livelihoods, the highly infectious disease can kill humans just as surely -- by famine. Livelihoods based on cattle, buffaloes and yaks are at risk as is the wildlife heritage of Africa. In 1982-84, a rinderpest outbreak in Africa caused losses of US$2 billion.

Experts are increasingly confident that recent national eradication campaigns have freed three of the last remaining reservoirs of the virus - in Sudan, Pakistan and Yemen - of the disease. But while the virus persists in the southern part of the so-called Somali pastoral ecosystem, not only nearby areas of Africa are at risk from reinfection by the movement of cattle, but trade in cattle could carry the virus across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula or, according to recent reports, even further afield to Southeast Asia.

"The Somali pastoral ecosystem is our great challenge now," says Dr Peter Roeder, Secretary of the FAO Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme, which is working to eradicate the disease by 2010. "It is almost certainly the last refuge of the rinderpest virus in the world."

"The world is very vulnerable to a devastating resurgence of rinderpest should progress falter," warns Dr Roeder. "The virus has repeatedly broken out of the Somali ecosystem before and spread as far as eastern Kenya and into Tanzania, most recently in the mid 1990s, affecting cattle and killing wildlife. Recent reports that traders are arranging to start exporting cattle to Southeast Asia are also most disturbing. This raises fears that the virus may reinfect a part of the world free from the disease since the 1950s."

"It is quite possible to move viruses around the world with a few hundred animals. It has happened before," he says. "Less than 50 years ago the Rome zoo suffered a rinderpest outbreak from virus introduced with Somali antelopes."

An NGO coalition working for the Pan-African Programme for the Control of Epizootics in southern Somalia has provided valuable details of the extent of the area in which the virus has survived. FAO is now urging the international community to provide additional resources and intensify efforts to search for and destroy the virus where it is active, through targetted vaccination in Kenya and Somalia.

The virus must be eradicated by the end of 2003, followed by years of verification and virus containment, including steps such as destroying lab samples of the virus, for the goal of a Global Declaration of complete freedom from rinderpest to be realized on schedule by the end of 2010.

If all stakeholders seize the opportunity to work together with the Pan-African Programme for the Control of Epizootics of the African Union's Inter-African Bureau of Animal Resources, and FAO, the prospects are better now than ever before.