Rinderpest eradication rich in lessons

Buffalos at Meru National Park. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG
Buffalos at Meru National Park. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO | NMG 

Near the entrance to Meru National Park, a massive bronze statue of a wild buffalo stares at visitors.

But this is not just any statue. Its use in the park, since 2011, symbolises the global eradication of rinderpest— a lethal viral disease that wiped herds of cattle, leaving pastoralist communities languishing in poverty.

A unilateral decision was made by the global community to have the statue at the park as it was the site of the world’s last recorded outbreak of rinderpest (German word that means cattle plague in English) in 2001.

Symptoms of the disease include fever, dehydration, profuse diarrhoea, erosive mouth lesions and discharge from the nose and eyes.

Death rates resulting from rinderpest outbreaks in cattle were always close to 100 per cent. It was, therefore, a great relief for farmers when the world was officially declared free of the disease in June 2011 by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

The declaration was also a great historical moment since rinderpest is the first, and so far the only animal disease that has been eradicated.

Health experts note that its success story offers valuable lessons in disease control that can help in managing others such as PPR (plague of small ruminants) that closely resembles rinderpest.

Dr Delia Grace, animal health expert at ILRI, said country conflicts and insecurity challenges need to be addressed as they hamper disease control.

This was the case with rinderpest that was introduced in Eastern Africa by military cattle from India which had been brought to Ethiopia in 1887 to feed the Italian army in that country.

By the end of 1892, there were reports that 90 per cent of the cattle had been lost in the country, causing the great Ethiopian Famine (between 1888 and 1892). About 95 per cent of cattle were also lost in Uganda with Kenya losing a significant proportion of its livestock too.

“Rinderpest eradication was possible as communities were involved in the control and eradication strategies,” she said.

“Due to enhanced awareness on the disease, people understood why they had to do certain things to keep their animals safe.”

Compared to other parts of the world, Dr Grace noted that rinderpest eradication in sub-Saharan Africa took much longer as most farmers were located in remote regions.

“We need to find innovative ways of reaching these people with disease control interventions in good time.”

Dr Walter Masiga, former director of the African Union Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-Ibar), noted that vaccines are the cornerstone for disease prevention and control.

The breakthrough moment for rinderpest eradication came with the development of a heat stable vaccine that was primed to give livestock lifelong protection, he said.

“This vaccine didn’t require refrigeration and could thus be deployed to remote regions without electricity even by bicycles.”

According to statistics from AU-IBAR, total benefits of rinderpest eradication from Kenya and Ethiopia were approximately Sh44.7 billion ($434 million) and Sh98 billion ($951 million) respectively.