Africa / Animal Diseases / Biotechnology / Cattle / Disease Control / East Africa / Epidemiology / ILRI / Kenya / Pastoralism / Somalia / Sudan / Uganda / Vaccines

Beating plague: Rinderpest is the second disease to be eradicated from the earth

ILRI veterinary epidemiologist Jeff Mariner at OIE meeting

ILRI veterinary epidemiologist Jeff Mariner presenting his research at a meeting of the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) (photo credit: OIE).

A disease that has devastated the planet for millennia has been eradicated. An international campaign has wiped the cattle plague rinderpest off the face of the earth.

‘For centuries, a disease has ravaged the globe—visiting nearly all corners at one time or another. In Europe so great was the threat of this disease that in the early 18th century, the Pope commissioned one of his most trusted physicians to investigate. Giovanni Lancisi’s “De Bovilla Peste”, is his detailed study of the disease, and represents the first concerted effort to control it.

‘Historians believe that in 4th-century-Europe the cattle disease, rinderpest may have contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

‘Since then Rinderpest has killed hundreds of millions of cattle worldwide. Untreated, it kills within days, wiping out whole herds and causing devastating economic losses wherever it has taken hold.’

The quotes above are from ‘Beating Plague,’ a 25-minute documentary film produced by Headlight Pictures for tve in partnership with The Open University. In the film, Dickens Chibeu, a veterinary epidemiologist from Kenya, tells the story of how one of the world’s most destructive diseases has been stamped out—after centuries of trying. The success was due in part to a breakthrough vaccination—and in part thanks to global collaboration. There are lessons here for animal and human health—and for other kinds of international cooperation.

Peter Roeder, former secretary of the rinderpest Eradication Campaign, says in this film that this is only the second time in the history of the world that a disease has been eradicated, with smallpox being the first.

One of the last pockets of the virus was in East Africa, where Dickens Chibeu works at the Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources. Chibeu says that livestock contribute some 30 per cent of agricultural gross domestic product in this region of Africa.

The eradication of rinderpest represents a significant achievement of African science. It was at the Veterinary Research Institute at Muguga, just outside Nairobi, Kenya, that Walter Plowright developed the vaccine against rinderpest.

Jeff Mariner, an animal virus expert working for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), headquartered in Nairobi, is interviewed in the film. Mariner led development of a thermostable version of the vaccine and helped train pastoralist livestock herders to deliver it. He says that the last remaining reservoirs of the disease in Africa were in the vast pastoral rangelands of Somalia, Sudan, northern Kenya and Uganda. A vaccine was needed that did not need to be kept cold as it was transported and delivered to these remote areas.

Mariner says it took a team effort to bring together modern and traditional knowledge about this disease. Sustained political support and productive partnerships were also critical.

Watch the film, Beating Plague, on Earth Reporters, a section of the website of The Open University.

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