20 November 2002 -- Experts are increasingly confident that the virus responsible for the devastating livestock disease rinderpest is no longer present in three of its last reserves, in Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen. Efforts are underway to eradicate the last traces of the disease in northeast Kenya and southern Somalia in order to meet a global deadline of 2010 for declaring the world completely free from the disease.

It would be only the second disease eradicated in history, after smallpox.

Rinderpest has always been the most dreaded bovine plague -- a highly infectious viral disease that can destroy entire populations of cattle and buffaloes. In regions that depend on cattle for meat, milk products and draft power, rinderpest has caused widespread famine and inflicted serious economic and political damage although the virus does not affect humans directly. A rinderpest outbreak that raged across much of Africa in 1982-84 is estimated to have cost at least US$2 billion.

Sudan vaccinates a million cattle

The mass vaccination of a million cattle in southeastern Sudan between May 2001 and May 2002 has contributed to growing confidence that the virus has finally been eliminated in that country.

The story of this campaign in a harsh land beset by civil war begins in the early 1990s, when UNICEF encountered resistance to its child vaccination programme in southern Sudan. "Vaccinate our cattle and then you can vaccinate our children, because if our cattle die, then our children will die anyway," they were told by villagers who feared rinderpest above all other diseases. Joined by US-based Tufts University, and non-governmental organizations, UNICEF launched a livestock programme within Operation Lifeline Sudan. A new vaccine that didn't need constant refrigeration helped the effort considerably. So did a community-based animal health network, in which respected herders were taught how to provide services to their communities, most importantly delivering rinderpest vaccination.

FAO took over Operation Lifeline Sudan in 2000 and, working with many partners, narrowed down the likely final hiding place of the rinderpest virus to the herds of the Murle and Jie tribes. Operating in remote bush without roads or infrastructure, the vaccination drive had to work on both sides of a conflict-racked area.

"FAO was the neutral party that could work with both sides in the conflict," says Dr Peter Roeder, Secretary of FAO's Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme. "We pushed the campaign towards eradication rather than control. We mobilized all the players - NGOs, herders, government - to go in and vaccinate approximately 1 million cattle belonging to the Murle and Jie peoples, cattle which had never been effectively vaccinated before."

Recent missions to Sudan by FAO Operation Lifeline Sudan and the Pan-African Programme for the Control of Epizootics have found no evidence of the virus causing disease, he notes. "If confirmed, this will be a remarkable achievement for all concerned parties, achieved by concerted action sustained over many years despite very serious constraints."

Asia without rinderpest

In Asia, the last reported outbreak of rinderpest was in Sindh Province, Pakistan in October 2000. Since then, investigations supported by the European Union and FAO suggest that the disease is no longer present in the country. Achieving eradication would be a remarkable success for the Pakistani authorities. Even recent massive movements of buffaloes and some cattle from Sindh and Punjab Provinces, Pakistan, to Afghanistan, with some onward trade to Iran, have not been accompanied by rinderpest, as one would have expected in the past.

Recent FAO-supported studies in Yemen suggest that the disease died out about five years ago. This confidence is due to concerted surveillance efforts by the Government and FAO with the participation of cattle owners. The process was helped by training in disease recognition,reporting and investigation follow-up.

"It is conceivable that Asia isnow free from rinderpest for the first time in millennia, although of course it will take some time before freedom can be proved in accordance with internationally accepted guidelines," says Dr Roeder.

Global freedom

To realize the goal of a Global Declaration of complete freedom from rinderpest by the end of 2010, the virus must be eradicated by the end of 2003. Then would follow years of verification and virus containment, including steps such as destroying lab samples of the virus.

For that to happen, an intense international effort must now focus on the Somali pastoral ecosystem of northeast Kenya and southern Somalia before the virus breaks out of its last stronghold through the movement of nomadic herds or the export of cattle.

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.