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Can we protect livestock as a lifeline for the most vulnerable?

by Monique Eloit | World Organisation for Animal Health
Thursday, 25 May 2017 14:13 GMT

A man holds a cow at the cattle market in Maiduguri, Nigeria, March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Keeping animals healthy can help keep people healthy too, and development on track

For centuries, rinderpest, a highly contagious and fatal cattle plague, spread across the world bringing social and economic devastation.

This deadly virus, passed through bodily fluids, preyed on cattle and buffalo and caused fever, severe diarrhea and dehydration. When it first emerged in Africa at the end of the 19th century, it killed up to 90 percent of the continent’s cattle herd.

At the peak of its reach, it decimated livestock from Europe to Africa, from the Philippines to Brazil. In Nigeria alone, the losses to rinderpest throughout the 1980s amounted to $2 billion.

In the grip of this threat, a global response was mounted.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) was founded to tackle the spread of rinderpest back in 1924 and successfully led with its partners the decades-long vaccination campaign that finally eradicated it in 2011, overcoming the menace of livestock going back millennia.

According to some experts, this victory saved 10 African countries alone an estimated $111 million each year, adding 126,000 tonnes of beef and 39,000 tonnes of milk to global markets. 

Improving animal health and welfare, in particular for livestock, remains at the core of OIE’s work. We must stay vigilant against animal diseases like rinderpest, which cause such misery and deprivation in the world.

This week we celebrate six years of a rinderpest-free world in which livestock and livestock keepers face one less threat. And with our new global communication campaign, we continue to educate national key animal health players on how to ensure “rinderpest stays history” by recognising its symptoms and safely eliminating the remaining stocks of the virus that exist in research laboratories.

Our Terrestrial Animal Health Code contains guidance on the prevention and control of rinderpest, amongst more that 100 other diseases, in the event that there is a reoccurrence of this plague.

But keeping the world safe from rinderpest is just the start.

Animal health is intrinsically linked to human health and development, and we continue to see evidence of that today.

Some 30 million animals are affected by Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR), sometimes called “sheep and goat plague”, every year, costing an estimated $1.2 to $1.7 billion dollars annually. Like rinderpest, this viral disease is highly contagious, causing painful lesions, severe pneumonia and often, death.

Such losses can be devastating setbacks for the 330 million people who keep small livestock, including sheep and goats, across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It represents a loss of assets, a loss of income, a lost meal and worse.

Thanks to our experience with the global rinderpest eradication strategy, including a mass vaccination campaign, we are now also on the road to eradicating PPR. We have learned lessons from previous work, including the importance of developing a vaccine that can remain potent in sub-tropical and tropical temperatures, to produce a similar inoculation and delivery campaign for PPR.

We are working alongside the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to prioritise the disease for eradication. As of last year, more than 50 countries were recognised as PPR-free, and our goal is to eliminate the disease entirely by 2030, removing yet another threat to the most vulnerable animals and people.

While these may be animal diseases, they have human consequences. This is why we must redouble our efforts to eradicate PPR as well as other preventable diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, and rabies.

This will require each remaining susceptible country to follow four stages, from assessing the scale and threat of PPR, to controlling it using the vaccine until it reaches eradication, followed by post-eradication vigilance. We know that vaccination is a key tool in both controlling and then eradicating disease.

Working for animal health goes hand in hand with benefiting people. We have a track record in coordinating mass vaccination programs that save lives and livelihoods. And we know that working together with veterinary services and animal medicine providers is our best chance of guaranteeing healthy livestock for a healthy future.

Monique Eloit is director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).