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Cattle plague: An extinction worth celebrating


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technician vaccinates cattle against rinderpestThe world’s deadliest cattle disease could be wiped off the face of the planet in the next 18 months, according to a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Rinderpest, "one of the most devastating animal diseases known to man," according to the FAO, could become only the second disease to be eradicated by humans, following the elimination of smallpox in 1980. Also known as "cattle plague," rinderpest causes high fever, erosions in the mouth and diarrhea, resulting in severe dehydration. Animals die just days after displaying symptoms, and the disease kills nearly 100 percent of those it infects.

Rinderpest outbreaks have been killing cattle and related species throughout Asia, Europe and Africa for millennia, and have changed the course of human history. Famine brought about by rinderpest epidemics in the 18th century fed unrest that led to the French Revolution. The introduction of rinderpest to sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the 19th century wiped out 80-90 percent of the region’s cattle, leaving the populace weak from hunger and unable to oppose European colonialism.

In the face of such a devastating opponent, it took concentrated efforts in the past few decades to come this close to wiping rinderpest out. The first near-success came in 1960, when a rinderpest vaccine was developed, but it was not used for a long enough period of time and the disease came roaring back. In the 1980s, billions of dollars worth of livestock were lost in several major outbreaks in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Flash forward to 1994, when the FAO formed the Global Rinderpest Eradication Program (GREP). Working with government agencies and organizations around the world, GREP charted the geographic distribution of rinderpest, worked to understand the disease better, and took local action to fight it.

Local actions included training veterinarians and farmers to recognize and report the rinderpest, establishing emergency response plans, setting biosecurity protocols, and working with countries to create programs for monitoring and controlling the disease.

The efforts paid off. In the past 15 years, 170 countries and territories have been certified as rinderpest-free by the World Organization for Animal Health, the international certification body for animal diseases. The last major outbreak was in Kenya in 2001, and the disease’s final stronghold was in a small, overlapping area of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya that the FAO now says appears to have been cleared.

"When you think about it, it’s quite remarkable that we are where we are today," said FAO chief veterinary officer Juan Lubroth in a prepared statement. "But if you look at it another way, the solution was simple. We had the know-how. We had the vaccine. What was missing was, in the first place, adequate and targeted investment, and, secondly, a cohesive global coordinating mechanism. Once we had those, solving the problem was just a matter of time."

The FAO will hold a meeting in Rome on December 2 to discuss post-eradication procedures. Chief veterinary officers and other health representatives from 50 countries are expected to attend.


Image: A technician from Ethiopia’s National Veterinary Institute vaccinates cattle against rinderpest (1987). Via the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

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  1. 1. WNY Conservative 5:24 pm 12/1/2009

    I AM GLAD TO SEE SUCH AN EVIL DISEASE JUST ABOUT ERADICATED. MY CONCERN THOUGH IS IT TIME TO LOOK BEYOND CATTLE AND OTHER ANIMAL SPECIES FOR FOOD TO FEED THE 6 BILLION OF US? THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH ARABLE LAND AVAILABLE ON OUR CONTINENTS AND COULD IT POSSIBLY BE BETTER USED TO PROVIDE CROPS? BEFORE YOU GET ALL UPSET OVER MY POSTING, I WANT YOU TO KNOW I ENJOY A GREAT WELL-MARBLED STEAK JUST LIKE A LOT OF MANY OF YOU; BUT, IF I EAT LESS OR NO MEAT MAYBE I CAN PROVIDE GRAINS TO FEED SOME OF THE ONE BILLION WITH LITTLE OR NO FOOD. I’D RATHER LOOK MY FELLOW HUMAN IN THE EYE WHEN HE CAN SMILE THAN LOOK AT GLAZE IN HIS DEAD EYES. WHAT EVER IT TAKES FOR OUR SALVATION AS A SPECIES.

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  2. 2. Quinn the Eskimo 12:44 am 12/2/2009

    Maybe, WNY Conservative, if *you* ate less well-marbled steak you wouldn’t have to SHOUT so much, eh?

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  3. 3. johnxvet 3:43 am 12/2/2009

    WNY’s assumption is that land used for livestock farming could be more productively used for growing arable crops. In many areas this might be true, but in cooler, wet, temperate climates with hilly terrain grass is the most suitable crop to grow, and the only effective way to harvest grass is by feeding it to ruminants. So grass fed beef or sheep may well represent an efficient use of land. Grain-fed ruminants on the other hand, are not.

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  4. 4. anairhoads 9:44 am 12/2/2009

    Excellent article, well done! In terms of eradicating disease, this is obviously something to be celebrated.

    However, I believe cattle plague is a result of mass-production, poor conditions and the unethical demand for meat and dairy products. Whether raised on free-range farms or in factory conditions, these animals are slaughtered to simply satisfy unnecessary human wants.

    Although this news is welcoming, we must consider whether or not the spread of this disease was a result of our domination over these animals.

    Anai Rhoads
    Friends of Animals
    http://www.friendsofanimals.org

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  5. 5. johnxvet 2:45 pm 12/2/2009

    To anairhoads: one response would be that the disease has been recognised for several hundred years and that it was the cattle plague that lead to the setting up of the first veterinary schools in France in the late 1700s and in Britain soon after. Animals, whether "dominated" by humans or not, still die of diseases.
    What is an unneccessary want? We all live to satisfy "uneccessary" wants, without which life would be dull and meaningless.

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  6. 6. pgtruspace 12:16 am 12/4/2009

    Ruminents are the only way to harvest and convert to human food the vegitation that grows on over 80% of the land of the world. Only modern western nations use farm land to feed these animals. By the way, a tender well marbled steak requires grain feeding for at least 90 days. Very wasteful and bad for you, but very tasty. Grass fat is better for you and the enviroment. (advice from an old stockman)

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