FAO's EMPRES opens dialogue with China on animal disease control

With a visit to the People's Republic of China by FAO's Animal Health Officer Peter Roeder, EMPRES (The Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases) has opened up a dialogue with a key player in the control of animal disease in Asia.

Animals at Yining market in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

Livestock are of huge importance to China. In the province of Yunnan alone there are 40 million people and 40 million livestock, half of them sheep and goats. Some 20 percent of the country is dependent on yaks for draught power, milk, meat, skins and wool. Livestock production development is seen as a key to improving the living standards of millions of poor people in rural areas of the country.

The Chinese are keen to be involved in the FAO-coordinated Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP), both to gain international recognition of their freedom from the disease and to help neighbouring countries in their fight against the cattle plague.

Rinderpest was eradicated in China over 40 years ago. When the People's Republic was established in 1948, the disease was killing more than 1 million cattle a year, with yaks and Korean cattle showing virtually a 100 percent mortality rate. Given that all field preparation was by draught animals, these losses represented a crippling constraint to food security. "In Xijang Autonomous Region, near Nepal, the impact was especially devastating" said Roeder, "as the people were almost totally dependent on livestock - especially yaks - for food, as well as clothing, housing and transport".

The disease's eradication was a top priority for the new government and work was started immediately to develop an effective vaccine. The task was complicated by the severe reactions of some species to the different vaccines developed. Vaccines that worked for most animals gave severe reactions in Korean cattle and yaks. When an effective vaccine was developed, the lack of freeze-drying facilities and refrigeration meant that it had to be prepared in the field and used immediately.

Despite all these difficulties, by 1954 only small pockets of infection remained in the southwest and northeast of the country. By the following year, rinderpest had been completely eradicated.The country has been free of rinderpest since that time. China remains vigilant and the fear of reinfection from northern Pakistan in 1994/95 led to a brief reintroduction of vaccination on the border, the first vaccine used since 1956.

Roeder - who spent two weeks visiting Beijing, Yunnan Province and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region - feels that China and FAO/EMPRES have much to learn from each other. China is looking for the latest technology and information - diagnostic and surveillance technology, manuals and communication materials - while "FAO could benefit from China's experience with running appropriate animal health services in remote areas", he said.

He praised the organization of China's Animal Husbandry and Health Bureaus, which monitor and respond to animal disease situations across the vast country. In the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, for example, a network of Veterinary Prevention Stations and Epidemic Centres operate under the provincial bureaus. Even during the summer migration to mountain pastures, contact between farmers and animal health workers is maintained through mobile health clinics - often themselves transported by horses and camels.

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a major concern, particularly in the Province of Yunnan which has seen nearly 250 outbreaks over the last 40 years - most of which could be traced to cross-border movement. China has expressed its interest in working on controlling the disease in the region in cooperation with EMPRES and other international organizations. Hog cholera or classical swine fever is another of the country's serious animal disease problems, as it is in Indochina.

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