How a global campaign to eradicate sheep and goat plague can help 400 million rural women

In April, high-level authorities from 15 countries pledged to collaborate on a global plan to wipe out 'Peste des petits ruminants' (PPR), a deadly viral disease of sheep and goats that affects the livelihoods of smallholders and pastoralists in over 70 c

© FAO / Giulio Napolitano


Small ruminants such as goats and sheep are particularly important to the world's poorest and most vulnerable, including rural women, who make up two-thirds (approximately 400 million people) of low-income livestock keepers in rural livestock-based economies.

We sat down with FAO Gender and Development Specialist Francesca Distefano to learn more about the disease in general, and its effect on rural women in particular.

Can you tell us something about the disease itself? What is PPR and where is it prevalent?

Peste des petits ruminants or PPR – sometimes known as sheep and goat plague – is a highly contagious, widespread and devastating disease that affects small ruminants (the name means small ruminant plague in French) – essentially sheep and goats. The disease is caused by a virus of the same family as the rinderpest virus, which was globally eradicated in 2011. PPR was first identified in West Africa in 1942, and after rapid expansion over the past 15 years it's now in over 70 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

What are the effects of PPR and who does the disease affect?

In untreated animals the disease can bring on fever, respiratory problems and diarrhea, along with dramatic loss in weight, milk production and reproductive capability. Affected animals become depressed, weak and severely dehydrated in a matter of days. The virus can infect up to 90 percent of a flock, and up to 70 percent of infected animals may die.

According to FAO's Animal Production and Health Division, PPR causes billions of dollars in losses every year. In the United Republic of Tanzania, for example, the cumulative annual loss due to PPR is estimated to be around US$67.9 million. In Pakistan, the disease causes annual losses of more than US$342 million.

The PPR virus does not infect humans, but because the disease attacks small ruminants, it's a major concern for poor rural households in developing countries, where goats and sheep serve as critical assets. By providing a steady flow of milk, meat, skins and wool throughout the year, as well as income opportunities and financial flexibility, these animals play a key role in ensuring food security and livelihood resilience in rural communities.

By killing off their livestock, PPR pushes millions of smallholder families deeper into poverty – increasing malnutrition, hunger and food insecurity. In addition, actions to contain the disease – such as depopulating diseased flocks, restricting movement and banning trade in small ruminants and their by-products – hurt already vulnerable farming communities and stifle overall economic growth.

Why are women particularly affected by PPR?

Women’s livelihoods are particularly threatened because women make up the majority of those caring for and raising small ruminants. Although livestock management systems vary among countries, rural women are usually the ones who manage small ruminants and rely on them for their livelihoods.

The reasons for this relate to existing gender inequalities in agriculture and rural development. Because rural women frequently lack access to natural resources such as land and water, and to inputs and services such as quality fodder and veterinary drugs, small ruminants represent a more accessible source of food and income for them. Compared with larger animals, they are cheaper to buy and easier to manage; they require fewer inputs and less investment; they reproduce relatively quickly; they can be sold or exchanged relatively easily; and they are generally more resilient to adverse climate conditions and drought.

The longer-term consequences of PPR are also different for women, again, because of existing gender inequalities in rural agricultural contexts. When PPR affects their flocks, rural women are less likely to have access to the inputs and services that are needed to help manage the disease and minimize its impact. These can include veterinary drugs and care, as well as technologies, information and training on disease recognition and management.

What needs to be done to enable men and women to tackle this disease?

PPR eradication is possible – a safe, potent and acceptable vaccine is now widely available – but a few issues need particular attention.

First, communication and awareness-raising on the disease and on animal health: This should focus both on understanding the disease and on managing it, such that those who care for small ruminants – whether male or female – are able to recognize symptoms, understand effects and take appropriate, effective action to minimize losses and prevent it from spreading further.

Second, a gender-sensitive approach to the actual implementation of control programmes, including the delivery of the vaccine itself: This requires a focus on both the men and the women who keep small ruminant livestock, recognizing their different needs and contexts and ensuring that both receive the drugs, technologies and training they need.

Finally, the establishment of community-based animal health delivery systems: These would provide rural women and men with opportunities to access animal health care at affordable prices, within easy reach of their homes and villages. This is especially relevant for women, whose household responsibilities and workload often prevent them from traveling as far as men to get the inputs, training, and services they need to save their flocks.



See also:

FAO Media: Countries pledge to wipe out sheep and goat plague globally
FAO Themes: Peste des petits ruminants