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The end of rinderpest

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TO describe the eradication of rinderpest as a landmark achievement would be to understate the case. Rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, has been a scourge of livestock and the people who depend on them for thousands of years and, indeed, has changed the course of history on more than one occasion. It is the first animal disease to be eradicated through human effort and, after smallpox, is only the second disease to have been eradicated worldwide.

Speaking during an assembly of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris last week – where delegates unanimously adopted a resolution that officially recognised that all 198 countries and territories in the world with rinderpest-susceptible animals are free of the disease – Bernard Vallat, the OIE's director general, described the achievement as ‘a major breakthrough – not only for science, but also for the cooperation policies amongst international organisations and with the international community as a whole’. He also described it as a success for veterinary services and the entire veterinary profession.

The OIE assembly is largely made up of the world's chief veterinary officers. Following last week's resolution, global freedom from the disease will be ratified by the world's agriculture ministers at a meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization at the end of this month. The evidence suggests that rinderpest stopped circulating in the wild in 2001, when the last cases were detected in north-east Kenya, and over the past decade, considerable effort has been devoted to confirming that no pockets of infection remain. The final step in the eradication process will be the sequestration and eventual destruction of all rinderpest viruses currently kept in secure laboratories.

Eradication of the disease represents the culmination of efforts spanning several decades, in which veterinary research, field veterinary services and national and internationally coordinated programmes have all played a part. It has depended on two main factors: first, discovery of an effective vaccine that worked well in tropical countries and, secondly, the adoption of a system of mass vaccinations followed by veterinary surveillance and focused vaccination in the event of outbreaks (Roeder and Rich 2009). Key steps included the development of a tissue culture vaccine in the 1950s and, in the late 1980s, development of a heat-stable version of the vaccine that could be used effectively in community-based programmes in remote areas.

Although some countries managed to eradicate rinderpest within their own borders, it took global coordination to eradicate the disease in other parts of the world, including the Pan African Rinderpest Campaign, which began operations in 1987, and the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP), which was launched in 1994. After first establishing the geographic distribution of the disease, the GREP developed a strategy for progressively eliminating it based on internationally coordinated activity in Africa, West Asia and South Asia, setting a deadline of 2010 for global freedom. Important aspects of the programme were that it incorporated a series of verifiable epidemiological objectives, and involved a shift from annual, institutionalised vaccination campaigns to a process of seeking out active infection, containing and eliminating it and then confirming the absence of the virus through surveillance.

Although rinderpest was a disease of animals, its eradication brings enormous benefits for people's livelihoods and food security. Its significance in this context was recognised in 1999, when veterinary surgeon Walter Plowright was awarded the World Food Prize for his role in developing the tissue culture vaccine (VR, October 2, 1999, vol 145, p 382).

The eradication of rinderpest provides an inspiring example of what can be achieved through a sound understanding of disease and coordinated effort and, in this respect, it is fitting that at this year's BVA Congress, to be held in London from September 22 to 24, Peter Roeder, who was secretary of the GREP from 2000 to 2007, will give the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture discussing how vets can contribute to disease control and make an impact on a global scale. The experience with rinderpest offers lessons for the future. Rinderpest is the first animal disease to be eradicated globally; it is to be hoped that it will not be the last and that international effort does not stop there.

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