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FAO to announce the end of rinderpest (cattle plague)

15 October 2010

Scientists from the BBSRC's Institute for Animal Health (IAH) will be in Rome (today, 15 October) at the headquarters of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) when the Director General of the FAO will announce the end of field operations and the successful conclusion of the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme's (GREP) objective of rinderpest eradication by 2010. This is only the second time that the world has been able to eliminate a viral disease.

Over a number of decades IAH scientists developed novel diagnostic tests, one of which resembles a pregnancy test, trained local people and scientists of Africa and Asia, and performed thousands of diagnostic tests to advise and monitor the eradication programme. IAH's Pirbright Laboratory also hosts the World Reference Laboratory for rinderpest, on behalf of the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)

For centuries the virus caused devastation amongst domestic cattle and buffalo in Europe, Africa and Asia, mortality being 80 to 90%. The virus caused dreadful damage in both respiratory and digestive tracts, leading to diarrhoea, dehydration, and ultimately death.

The FAO, in partnership with OIE and other organisations, launched the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme in 1994, with the objective of eradicating the virus by 2010. In the event, no known outbreaks of the disease have occurred since 2001, and continued surveillance indicates that rinderpest virus has been eliminated from its last stronghold, the Somali Ecosystem. At the Rome meeting, experts will review how this monumental achievement was obtained, and look forward to how the lessons learned can be applied to the eradication of other livestock viruses.

"There has never been such an important and devastating disease as rinderpest in livestock," said Dr Michael Baron of the IAH. "We've known about it and its problems for a thousand years - and we've got rid of it."

Dr John Anderson, MBE, Head of the FAO's Rinderpest World Reference Laboratory at IAH until his retirement in 2008 said "I think that the biggest achievement of veterinary history has been the eradication of rinderpest globally." Rinderpest virus is the only virus of animals to have been eradicated, and only the second virus of all to be eliminated, the first being smallpox virus of humans by 1980.

That the battle against rinderpest has been so successful is a testament to the persistence and passion shown by many people, comprising scientists and veterinarians in both developed and emerging countries, officials in organisations such as the FAO and OIE and contributing governments, including the UK, and - not least - the countless number of villagers who owned cattle, and their supporting governments.

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "The FAO's announcement marks only the second time in human history that a viral disease has been eliminated across the world. IAH scientists have dedicated years of effort to this achievement and it translates into significant improvement in quality of life for millions of people and billions of dollars of savings to developing economies. Announcements such as this are rare but this just magnifies the significance and demonstrates the important role of world-class national facilities, such as the Institute for Animal Health laboratories at Pirbright."

"I think we should look back at the success of the global rinderpest eradication programme and see it as a blueprint," said John Anderson. "This blueprint won't necessarily work with all diseases or all animal virus diseases but it can work as a basic format to approach eradication programmes. For too long I think people have been involved in controlling diseases and not actually dreaming that it is possible to eradicate a disease from the world - and with rinderpest we did."

Michael Baron added "One of the great tragedies would be is if we allowed all the people who were involved in the eradication of rinderpest to retire, and their expertise to disappear before we captured all that and got it working on the next problem." Anderson and Baron, plus former IAH scientists who participated in the eradication of rinderpest, will contribute to the FAO's October meeting, to celebrate the achievement and to take forward the lessons learned to another problem. The next candidate for elimination could well be a close relative of rinderpest virus, namely peste des petites ruminants virus (PPRV), which affects sheep and goats.

There are several follow-up actions necessary to sustain the world's freedom from rinderpest. FAO and OIE are planning to make a formal joint declaration of global rinderpest eradication in mid-2011, with a view to maintaining the international community's preparedness in the event of accidental release of the virus from laboratories.

ENDS

Notes to editors

Information on rinderpest, the centuries-long fight against it, and the role of British scientists in the demise of the virus can be found on the website of the IAH, www.pirbright.ac.uk/Disease/rinderpest.aspx

Rinderpest triggered the formation of veterinary schools and state veterinary services
The first veterinary school (Lyon, 1761) was created in response to the need to train specialists - the first veterinarians, in effect - to deal with rinderpest. Other European countries followed suit. This, in turn, led to the creation of State Veterinary Services (SVS) e.g. in England in 1865. Within two years of the creation of the SVS in England the disease had been eliminated.

About IAH

The Institute for Animal Health, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), is a world-leading centre of excellence for research into viruses of farm animals, principally cattle, poultry, sheep, pigs and horses. Our research extends from fundamental to applied research, from genes all the way through to animal populations. It is our belief that better control of viral diseases requires a greater understanding of how each virus causes disease, how the immune systems of the farm animals respond to infection, and how the viruses spread, including those distributed by insects and other arthropods. In this way we contribute to the development of smarter, more effective vaccines; develop more discriminatory, user-friendly diagnostics; provide diagnostic services; and give expert knowledge to guide policy makers and farmers.

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Dr Dave Cavanagh, IAH Press Office

tel: 07789 941568