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Features: Africa Making History

The Scientist

The Scientists:
Teams of Winners

Veterinarian Tilahun Yilma stands among a legion of scientists, researchers, and specialists who are ending the rinderpest threat. For him, the mission has been a journey of backward and forward steps.

Dr. Yilma spent two years tracking nomadic herders along the Ethiopian-Somalia border. It was part of a campaign in the 1970s to vaccinate Africa's cattle and stamp out rinderpest.

"It was a $51 million failure," the Ethiopian scientist says, before scientists found the winning approach. The vaccine, it turned out, lost some of its potency when exposed to heat, and needed to be refrigerated for best results -- a difficult necessity in the hot and arid regions of nomadic Africa. Besides, he says, the vaccine produced by western laboratories was too expensive and could not be sustained locally.

That’s changed. The young vet turned virologist and went on to discover a cheap, easy to administer vaccine that did not require refrigeration. The IAEA then funded his research to develop an inexpensive diagnostic test (based on immunoassay technology and nuclear science) for rinderpest to help African countries monitor and eradicate the virus.

It has since become a standard test for rinderpest in Africa, where it is now produced for a fraction of the price demanded by Western labs. In 2001, the OAU’s Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (IBAR) commended Dr. Yilma’s achievements, singled out the IAEA's Technical Cooperation Programme for its catalytic support to African countries. The development and verification of the new vaccine and test kit, said IBAR’s Dr. J.T. Musiime, "could not have come at a more propitious time for the rinderpest eradication programme."

Professor Yilma, and the University of California-Davis where he heads the virology department, gave the patents for his discoveries free to the developing world. For Yilma it was personal. Up to 60% of Ethiopia’s population starved to death when rinderpest was introduced in 1888 by Italian troops. The year is commemorated on his country’s calendar as "Yekebit Elkkit," the Year of the Annihilation of Cattle.

The work of Dr. Yilma and colleagues was built on a long rail of scientific research and development, supported by the United Kingdom, United States and other countries, as well as international bodies like the IAEA and FAO. The initial vaccine against rinderpest, for example, was developed by Dr. Walter Plowright and colleagues in Kenya, work for which Dr. Plowright was awarded the prestigious World Food Prize in 1999.

Today, thanks to the remarkable progress of rinderpest eradication campaigns, the demand for vaccine has faded. Fortunately in place are the technology and expertise to effectively monitor cattle, to make sure that the animals are never again endangered by the plague of the past.

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