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New Scientist’s Fred Pearce reports on ‘How African herders rid the planet of a disease’

Community animal health worker vaccinating animals against rinderpest in Karamajong, Uganda

Tom Olaka, a community animal health worker in Karamajong, northern Uganda, was part of a vaccination campaign in remote areas of the Horn of Africa that drove the cattle plague rinderpest to extinction in 2010 (photo credit: Christine Jost).

Fred Pearce writes in New Scientist about How African herders rid the planet of a disease, citing a veterinary epidemiologist named Jeffrey Mariner, who works in the Nairobi animal health laboratories of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) (13 Sep 2012).

‘Out in the bush, scientists should be humble and bow to the greater knowledge of locals. A paper out today tells the story of how rinderpest—a cattle plague that brought down empires and caused some of Africa’s worst famines—was finally eradicated, in May last year.

‘According to Jeffrey Mariner of Tufts University in North Grafton, Maryland [and now at ILRI]—one of the key players in the eradication—it was achieved by using the expertise of local cattle herders rather than the floundering efforts of outsiders. He and his colleagues advocate applying this “barefoot” strategy to other animal diseases. . . .

‘[After many false starts by international organizations,] Mariner and other scientists developed a heat-resistant vaccine that needed no refrigeration and so could be kept in remote locations that did not have electricity.

Then—often despite opposition from official vets—they began recruiting cattle herders to wield the syringes.

‘The herders would walk for days in regions where vets in four-wheel drives seldom ventured. Most critical of all, says Mariner, they used their local knowledge of the disease and the movements of cattle to target vaccination drives. . . .

‘Mariner hopes to start work next year on distributing a new heat-resistant vaccine for the “goat plague”—or peste des petits ruminants—which is endemic in much of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. . . .’

Read the whole article in New Scientist: How African herders rid the planet of a disease (13 Sep 2012).

Read the ILRI News Blog about this: New analysis in ‘Science’ tells how world eradicated deadliest cattle plague from the face of the Earth, 13 Sep 2012.

Read the paper in Science (subscription required to read full text): Rinderpest eradication: Appropriate technology and social innovations, by Jeffrey Mariner, James House, Charles Mebus, Albert Sollod, Dickens Chibeu, Bryony Jones, Peter Roeder, Berhanu Admassu, Gijs van ’t Klooster, 14 September 2012, Vol. 337 no. 6100 pp. 1309–1312, DOI: 10.1126/science.1223805.

Read previous articles on the ILRI News and Clippings blogs about the eradication of rinderpest:

ILRI’s Jeff Mariner speaks on what he learned from the eradication of rinderpest–and his new fight against ‘goat plague’, 15 Sep 2012.

Goat plague next target of veterinary authorities now that cattle plague has been eradicated, 4 Jul 2011.

Deadly rinderpest virus today declared eradicated from the earth–’greatest achievement in veterinary medicine’, 28 Jun 2011.

After successful eradication of rinderpest, African researchers now focus on peste des petits ruminants, the most urgent threat to African livestock, 22 Nov 2010.

Why technical breakthroughs matter: They helped drive a cattle plague to extinction, 28 Oct 2010.

One thought on “New Scientist’s Fred Pearce reports on ‘How African herders rid the planet of a disease’

  1. Joe De Capua of Voice of America also interviewed ILRI’s Jeffrey Mariner. Go here for that interview, published on 17 Sep 2012: ‘Pastoralists played major role in ending rinderpest’:

    ‘Rinderpest had been around for centuries before Europeans inadvertently brought it Africa in 1887. Over the next decade it spread across much of the continent, causing many deaths from starvation in Ethiopia.

    ‘While there were several early vaccines, the key vaccine was developed in 1960 by Walter Plowright, who received the World Food Prize for his work.

    ‘Mariner said, “It was a phenomenal vaccine. It protected against all types of rinderpest. It protected for life for the animals with a single immunization. There was never any recorded adverse reaction. And that actually spurred a lot of attempts to eradicate the disease and one called JP15, which ultimately almost succeeded, but they just stopped a few years too soon.”

    ‘The only problem with the vaccine was that it had to be kept cold before use. Mariner and his colleagues began working on the heat stability of the vaccine in the late 80’s and solved the problem by 1990. . . .

    ‘But Mariner and others realized it would take more than veterinary professionals to immunize all the animals at risk. So they went to local pastoralist communities. Mariner says formal government institutions did not reach remote rural areas. . . .

    ‘The same concept may be used to help eradicate what’s called small ruminant plague, which is closely related to rinderpest. However, it affects sheep and goats. Mariner says the vaccine for the plague has now been made so it too no longer needs refrigeration. What’s more, the pastoralist model may also be applied to rabies.

    ‘He said the success of the rinderpest eradication effort proved that African communities are more than able to take on such jobs.’

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