For centuries, rinderpest, a highly contagious viral disease afflicting cattle, buffalo, yak and several wildlife species, caused immense livestock losses and crushing economic damage. Once common in Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East, rinderpest, or cattle plague, has now been eradicated worldwide, as officially declared on 25 May by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris.
"This is a momentous achievement," explains Adama Diallo, who heads the Animal Production and Health Laboratory of the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme for the application of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.
"The world's first veterinary school was set up in France in 1761 for the control of rinderpest, which means that it took mankind 250 years to eradicate this disease."
The IAEA, together with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), has made significant technical contributions to this achievement through the development, evaluation, validation and distribution of immunological and molecular nuclear and nuclear-related technologies for the diagnosis and control of the disease.
Technology from the Lab to the Field
Initially controlled through a policy of "stamping out" (i.e. slaughter of all infected or exposed animals), rinderpest was later brought under control by vaccination, which has been key to its eradication. As part of this programme, it was necessary to have tools, diagnostic tests, available to determine where the disease was claiming victims, where it would spread, which animals were infected or at risk and, most importantly, to verify that the vaccinations prevented disease outbreak.
A generation ago, veterinarians and farmers had few tools to diagnose and control the disease's spread among livestock, until the Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) platform was developed in the early 1980s mainly with support from the IAEA. ELISA was developed in stages and evolved from a research tool into an affordable diagnostic laboratory technology.
Easy-to-use ELISA kits were provided to laboratories in the field together with control reagents and a protocol containing a list of the essential equipment required to conduct the assay. These kits were specifically designed for use in laboratories in countries participating in the Pan African Eradication Campaign (PARC), which covered 34 countries.
Through its Technical Cooperation programme, the IAEA also trained national veterinary staff across Africa to use the ELISA Kit as a monitoring tool, and helped establish a feedback system. Software programs specifically written for the campaign facilitated data acquisition, processing, management, interpretation and reporting, as well as quality assurance. In addition, an external quality assurance programme with check sample panels facilitated international certification of laboratory performance using the ELISA kit or its equivalent.
These tools and techniques developed for PARC were also used in the West Asian and South Asian Rinderpest Eradication Campaigns, as well by the FAO's field implementation activities in the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP).
"This serves as a powerful example of what can be achieved when the international community and individual country's veterinary services and farming communities cooperate to develop and implement results-based policies and strategies," says Ali Boussaha, Director of the IAEA's Division for Africa, Department of Technical Cooperation.
As a result of these achievements, these tests have been included in the OIE Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals as the internationally agreed diagnostic tests for rinderpest and its closely related disease affecting small ruminants, the peste des petits ruminants, thereby contributing to assurance of the sanitary safety of animals and animal products in international trade.
Benefitting the World
The socio-economic consequences of this remarkable achievement cannot be underestimated.
"In Africa alone, rinderpest eradication has led to an annual economic benefit of around US$920 million," says Diallo.
In addition, Member States derived a number of benefits from the rinderpest eradication campaign.
"For example, capacity building for national laboratories, improvements in epidemiological studies and data management, are all areas which benefitted directly from this campaign," explains Hermann Unger, a Technical Officer from the Animal Production and Health Section of the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme.
"This means that developing countries that were involved in this programme have been improving their capacity to devise and implement animal health strategies."
A Global Campaign
In 1994, the FAO launched its Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) to consolidate gains in rinderpest control and move towards eradication of the disease.
Initially, GREP put much effort into establishing the geographical distribution and epidemiology of the disease. Later, it promoted action to contain rinderpest within the infected eco-systems, and to eliminate reservoirs of infection through control programmes.
Once experts accumulated evidence that the virus had likely been eliminated, GREP's activities progressively focused on establishing surveillance systems to prove the absence of the disease.
Rinderpest is the first animal disease ever to be eliminated, and only the second time that a disease has been eradicated worldwide, after smallpox in humans.