Rinderpest emergency declared in East Africa

Risk of rinderpest epidemic spread
from southern Kenya, January 1997


A major epidemic of rinderpest, a highly contagious and deadly disease that afflicts cattle and other cloven-hoofed animals, has spread across most of southeastern Kenya and is spilling into Tanzania. According to a special report released by FAO in mid-February, cases of rinderpest have been detected within 50 km of the world-famous Serengeti and Ngorongoro wildlife reserves.

If the epidemic is not checked, it could wreak severe economic and ecological damage across much of eastern and southern Africa. Many countries in the region have established profitable meat export businesses, based on the fact that their herds have been free of rinderpest and foot-and-mouth disease. Tourism attracted by the world's richest congregation of large wild mammals - such as giraffes, zebras, elephants and lions - represents another major source of income and foreign exchange.

The area in which the outbreak is occurring is also suffering from a severe drought, which greatly increases the danger that the disease will spread widely.

"In times of drought, pastoralists move their animals out of the traditional range in search of grazing and water," FAO expert Mark Rweyemamu explained. "This increased mobility is bringing rinderpest into contact with completely susceptible populations of wildlife and unvaccinated livestock and will, unless checked, sweep through Tanzania and on into southern Africa."

While domestic animals could be vaccinated, the threat to the region's wildlife is especially alarming. Rinderpest epidemics have devastated cattle, buffalo and wildlife species over the past century. A rinderpest pandemic at the turn of the century wiped out as much as 90 percent of all cattle in Africa south of the Sahara.

Domestic cattle being vaccinated against rinderpest

Coordinated actions by southern African countries eliminated the disease from the Cape of Good Hope to central Tanzania in the 1930s. More recently, the Pan African Rinderpest Campaign (PARC) has made great progress in controlling rinderpest on the rest of the continent.

In July 1996, a consultation of FAO's Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases (EMPRES) declared most of Africa rinderpest-free. The scene was set for final eradication of the disease.

But the situation has changed for the worse dramatically in recent months, according to a recent EMPRES report. Investigations at the end of 1996 confirmed that rinderpest had reached southern Kenya. Studies carried out in January and February 1997 show that the disease has continued to spread, with cases detected in cattle near the border with Tanzania.

FAO officially classified the outbreak as a disaster at the beginning of February and launched an appeal for a multidonor emergency trust fund to tackle the current epidemic and reinforce efforts to eradicate the disease.

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25 February 1997

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