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Home / Livestock

How rinderpest was eradicated

Some of the Sahiwal cattle reared at Marigat Mission Hospital in Baringo. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Are you aware that there is a deadly animal disease that was eradicated 10 years ago? Rinderpest it is. And to celebrate this great milestone, on 28 June this year, the world will gather virtually to commemorate 10 years of this great stride. This was the first animal disease in history to be declared eradicated second only to smallpox that had been declared eradicated in 1980. It was a great relief to livestock farmers who had suffered great losses during rinderpest outbreaks that littered the globe. 

Why is rinderpest eradication a big deal?

Immediately rinderpest was declared eradicated, it did not mean the end of the battle but the beginning of efforts to maintain the freedom status. To actualise this, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) took the lead in the development and implementation of strategies to maintain the rinderpest disease freedom for ever.

But you may ask why make these efforts when the disease has been eradicated?

The greatest danger of re-emergence of rinderpest is the likely to be from the rinderpest containing materials that many countries at the time of freedom declaration were still keeping in their laboratories. This include the vaccines that were used, specimens collected from the field and other contaminated medical equipment.  Towards this end many countries including Kenya have destroyed all their rinderpest virus containing materials. But there are still other countries who are holding onto this rinderpest virus containing materials. FAO and OIE have heightened advocacy for such countries to either destroy these materials or safely keep them in secure reference facilities.

How was rinderpest vanquished?

It was courtesy of rinderpest that the first veterinary school was established in Lyon France in 1762. The OIE as we know it today came to be largely to fight rinderpest. The vast repercussions of the disease at social and economic levels led in 1924 to the creation of the OIE, with the aim of giving the much-needed global coordination. The African Union Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) came into the limelight as a continental coordinating body for eradication of rinderpest.

Rinderpest was eradicated through concerted mass vaccinations of animals through well-coordinated and financed multi-country programmes. The availability of an effective vaccines developed here in Kenya was a critical cog so was its quality assurance done by the African Union Pan African Veterinary Vaccine Center (AU-PANVAC). Surveillance was a key component to gauge the success of vaccination interventions.

There was political goodwill across Africa enabling the vaccination of a good proportion of animals for a requisite herd immunity to be attained. As Dr. Dickens Chibeu who coordinated the vaccinations in Somali ecosystem puts it “in the fight to eradicate rinderpest, our focus was the virus and nothing, not even civil conflict could distract us.”

Victory was sweet

By 2011 no country had reported rinderpest for since 2001. Actually, the last case was reported in a buffalo in Kenya in 2001. With this the world had attained an eradication threshold and that climaxed in the declaration of rinderpest freedom by the OIE. 

So, what was rinderpest?

Rinderpest or cattle plague as it was called was a viral contagious and highly-fatal disease of domestic and wild animals. Vulnerable animas were cattle, pigs, buffaloes, girrafes and kudus.  It has a very high mortality rate; many historical accounts exist of farmers who lost hundreds of cattle within a fortnight.

Affected animals had a high fever, depression, nasal/ocular discharges, wounds in the mouth and the digestive tract and diarrhea.  Rinderpest remains a notifiable disease and adequate surveillance systems must be maintained for the early detection of clinical cases and implementation of interventions to restore the freedom status. 


[The writer was the Vet of the Year Award winner and works in the Division of Communication and Vet Advisory Services within the Directorate of Veterinary Services; [email protected]]

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