The 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