Ending the plague, improving lives
Alain Vandersmissen talks about EU support for the fight against rinderpest
The 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 interest of everybody to try to control and eradicate rinderpest in any country which is at risk of transmitting the disease 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 ‘vertical’ projects, meaning projects that focus only on rinderpest, specifically in Africa, but we soon came to fund more comprehensive programmes that were addressing the strengthening of 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 to rinderpest control. And if you consider the contributions of 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?
There is an immediate step to take control of the situation after eradication has been declared. 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.
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. They infected all the countries they conquered.
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 and idea of the dimension of this issue only for that continent.
In 1920, there was a big accident of rinderpest in Europe. A ship transiting in Belgium and sailing from India with Indian cattle being exported to Brazil, stopped in Antwerp harbour for a few days. The animals were off-loaded and very rapidly, 300 farms were infected with rinderpest. So that really scared Europe and it especially scared 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 (GREP) is an international coordination mechanism spearheaded by FAO, in close association with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).