Animal diseases spreading at alarming rate


A shepherd tends his flock in Kenya's Rift Valley, where Rift Valley Fever was first identified over 100 years ago.


In Yemen, herds like this are now menaced by recent cases of Rift Valley Fever.


Outbreaks of Bluetongue, a disease affecting sheep, have been reported in parts of Europe where it was unknown before.


Unprecedented outbreaks of deadly livestock diseases have been reported recently in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. FAO has warned that greater international trade in animals and animal products and increased movement of populations from country to country is contributing to the spread of highly infectious diseases.

"Transboundary animal diseases continue to be a real threat," says FAO Senior Animal Health Officer Mark Rweyemamu. "No country can claim to be safe from these diseases. In an increasingly globalized world, veterinary surveillance systems are vital both to detect these diseases and to contain any outbreaks." Veterinary services should not be considered a luxury, Rweyemamu points out, but must be supported to avoid future disasters.

A series of disturbing examples prove the point. In September, over 30 people in Yemen were reported to have died from Rift Valley fever, a mosquito-borne virus that kills people as well as animals. In Saudi Arabia's Jizan province, which borders Yemen, at least 33 people have also died from the disease -- the first known outbreak outside Africa.

"It is possible that the virus was brought from Africa by infected people or by the transport of infected animals," says Dr Rweyemamu. FAO is participating with partners in emergency missions to Saudi Arabia and Yemen to help understand and control the outbreak.

September also saw cases of foot-and-mouth disease in South Africa's Kwa Zulu Natal province. It was the first reported case of the disease there since 1956. Over 700 pigs and other livestock were slaughtered, and veterinary authorities have imposed a full quarantine within a 10-kilometre radius. For the moment, these measures appear to have successfully contained the spread of this highly infectious disease. However, the threat of export restrictions on local agricultural products could lead to severe economic losses.

Investigators suspect that the virus was brought into the country through waste food illegally obtained from a foreign ship passing through nearby Durban harbour. The particular strain of the virus, Type 0, has never before been seen in southern Africa south of the Zambezi River.

Other examples include:

  • Earlier this year, Bulgaria and Italy reported outbreaks of Bluetongue - a deadly viral disease of sheep that causes fever and swelling of the tongue and face. Bluetongue had never been diagnosed there before.

  • In August the United Kingdom confirmed its first outbreak of classical swine fever since 1986. Although not a threat to humans, swine fever is a highly contagious viral disease. In just one month, 35,000 pigs were slaughtered to contain the epidemic. Authorities believe the disease was reintroduced through contaminated pig meat products.

2 October 2000

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