Farming breakthrough: Cattle plague bites the dust

PARIS, FRANCE - In a moment that is being compared to the eradication of smallpox among humans, farming monitors on Wednesday will declare an ancient, devastating cattle disease has been stamped out after a nearly nine-decade effort.

Rinderpest, a highly contagious and usually fatal viral disease also known as cattle plague, has been a curse throughout the ages, killing hundreds of millions of animals in Europe, Asia and Africa.

It now becomes the first animal disease to be destroyed in human history.

Rinderpest has not only inflicted devastating economic losses that have fallen particularly on the shoulders of small farmers.

At times, it has contributed to famine, with effects that have changed the course of history.

"Rinderpest epidemics and resulting losses preceded the fall of the Roman empire, the conquest of Christian Europe by Charlemagne and the impoverishment of Russia," the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes.

"When rinderpest was introduced into sub-Saharan Africa, at the end of the 19th century, it triggered extensive famines and opened the way for the colonisation of Africa."

But the disease's long reign of sorrow will officially come to an end in Paris on Wednesday when the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) declares it has been eradicated from the Earth.

Rinderpest is "one of the most dreaded animal diseases," said Bernard Vallat, director-general of the Paris-based agency. "This constitutes a major breakthrough."

The expected vote by the OIE's assembly will recognise that 198 countries have been declared rinderpest-free by the agency, which has worked alongside the FAO to wipe out the disease.

However, delegates were still wrangling on Monday over how to certify that samples of the killer virus are destroyed and that reference samples, needed for research, are housed in high-security labs to avoid accidental release or use in a bioterror weapon.

"It's a sensitive issue," said an OIE official, who saw a parallel with the ongoing debate at the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) over smallpox samples held in US and Russian labs. Smallpox was declared eradicated in October 1979.

Rinderpest can mortally afflict cattle, yaks, wildebeest and buffaloes but can also cause milder symptoms in cloven-footed animals, including sheep and goats.

Animals become feverish, develop lesions in the mouth, diarrhoea and dehydration, often dying within 10 to 15 days, according to the OIE's website.

Tackling the problem dates back to 1744, when vets in the Netherlands and England tried to vaccinate animals. An effective vaccine emerged in the early 20th century.

The key to controlling rinderpest, though, has been international cooperation to check cross-border trade and help for veterinarians to identify outbreaks of the disease.

Wednesday's scheduled declaration crowns an effort that dates back to 1920, when rinderpest broke out among imported animals in Belgium.

The scare led to the establishment in 1924 of the OIE, which sets down guidelines for veterinary health in farm animal trade.

Once poorly visible as an international organisation, the OIE has seen its workload increase hugely in the past decade.

It has had to tackle the demands of globalised trade, epidemics of mad-cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease among animals and outbreaks of poultry disease, such as bird flu, that spread to humans.

Rinderpest is a cousin of the measles virus in the Paramyxoviridae family and may indeed have been the origin of that pathogen when humans began to domesticate cattle around 8,000 years ago.