Deadly animal virus threatens to spread to southern Africa

50 million sheep and goats at risk

2 November 2010, Rome - A deadly viral disease which broke out in Tanzania earlier this year risks spreading to Southern Africa, posing a mortal threat to more than 50 million sheep and goats in 15 countries, FAO warned today.
Known as Peste des Petits Ruminants (Small Ruminants' Plague), or PPR, it is considered as the most destructive viral disease affecting small ruminant flocks, on par with rinderpest in cattle in the past. PPR may cause death rates of up to 100 percent in sheep and goats and although it does not infect humans, it can cause enormous socio-economic losses.

FAO issued the warning following a recent emergency mission to Tanzania by the agency’s Crisis Management Centre - Animal Health (CMC-AH).

The mission recommended that Tanzania initiate an emergency vaccination programme around the disease outbreak site in the northern half of the country and consider additional vaccination in the area bordering Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. It is important also that the latter countries immediately step up vigilance and engage in proactive surveillance.

If the disease is allowed to spread from Tanzania into the whole of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) it could  potentially devastate the livelihoods and food security of millions of small herders and agro-pastoralists.

Southern Africa so far disease-free

PPR broke out in Tanzania in early 2010, threatening a local population of over 13.5 million goats and over 3.5 million sheep. It occurs in Middle Eastern countries and parts of Central and South Asia, while in Africa it has affected the western, eastern and central parts of the continent. But so far southern Africa has been spared.

Mission team leader Adama Diallo said the disease is easily transmissible by direct contact between live animals in shared pastures and at live animal markets. Diallo heads the Animal Production and Health Laboratory of the joint FAO/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) laboratory in Vienna, Austria.

Further spread

To halt further spread of the disease his team recommended targeted vaccination of small ruminants based on critical control points and routes used by pastoralists. But vaccination of small ruminants in a wider area is required in southern Tanzania where this is particularly relevant as any virus here poses a risk to SADC as a whole. The first priority is therefore to ensure that the virus ceases circulating there.

For the northern half of the country, emergency vaccination around outbreak sites would be important to halt the virus and sheep and goat keepers must not move their animals until allowed to do so by the authorities, Diallo said.
FAO, he added, was available to help countries monitor the availability of vaccine stocks for emergency vaccination, reinforce laboratory capacity and strengthen active surveillance in the field. It could also assist in enhancing awareness of the disease among field veterinarians, their auxiliaries, pastoralists and traders.

Juan Lubroth, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer, noted that, “Sheep and goats are critical to food and income security for pastoral communities. The presence of the disease directly affects a family’s wealth, hence the veterinary services of countries in the region must review their preparedness plans, strengthen border control and improve surveillance. We are at the disposal of SADC in times of need. This may well be one of those times.”

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Nsapolitano
Sheep and goats are critical to herders'livelihoods