Or they told stories about how lions and hyenas had turned to hunting people because rinderpest had decimated their natural prey.
Despite the absence of recent outbreaks, the threat of this contagious and deadly scourge was very much alive in the memories of livestock keepers in remote, insecure parts of Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda in the early 2000s.
I was there as a foot soldier in the war against rinderpest, a disease so potent that it had altered the trajectory of entire civilisations.
“Engaging and training local community animal health workers … could vanquish even the most deadly and infectious of diseases.”
Delia Grace, ILRI
When I travelled throughout the Horn of Africa, working to support community animal health workers, this plague was finally in retreat. It had wiped out 90 per cent of the continent’s herd at the end of the 19th century, contributing to famine, destitution and losses amounting to billions of dollars and had flared again in a second great African rinderpest pandemic of the 1980s.
Africa had seen three co-ordinated campaigns to eradicate rinderpest: the last from 1999 to 2007 led by the EU-funded Pan African Programme for the Control of Epizootics (PACE), for which I worked. This was part of a global coalition led by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
In a continent where more than 80 per cent of the poor keep livestock, rinderpest was a disease feared beyond all others. African governments and farmers rallied around control programmes, which brought to bear novel partnerships between state and private veterinarians. But each time, the disease would retreat before these campaigns to hotspots in remote and insecure pastoralist regions, from which it would re-emerge years or decades later.
The pastoralists living in these regions were likewise willing to do anything to eliminate this scourge but first they had to learn to trust the outsider agencies such as the PACE programme. And this in turn meant supporting agencies had to learn to understand cattle culture.
Like many victories in wars, the rinderpest campaign ultimately succeeded by engaging local communities, particularly in the mass livestock vaccination programme, which was conducted under an OIE Rinderpest Pathway that recognised the last handful of countries such as Bangladesh, Israel and Nigeria free of the disease based on strict control of their epidemiological situations.
Those who worked in this campaign came to understand that cattle really are the most important thing to Africa’s pastoralists. In some communities, boys are named after bulls, not the other way around. And the same boys could carry rifles from the age of 12 slung over their cut-down military shirts and traditional tartan robes (“shukas”) to protect themselves from cattle raiders.
Animals and their health have always been inseparable from pastoralist issues of peace as well as food security.
In these remote African regions, it was local community animal health workers — members of these villages who received training from me and colleagues — who were ultimately able to deliver the final weapon that would eradicate rinderpest by 2011: a vaccine able to remain effective even in tropical heat.
The rinderpest vaccine was a pioneering innovation that has since become the basis for efforts to control other animal diseases. Unlike previous vaccine formulations, this heat-tolerant vaccine made it possible to inoculate animals in remote areas without the need for refrigeration.
“Six years on, the eradication of rinderpest — arguably the greatest success of veterinary medicine to date — offers invaluable lessons.”
Delia Grace, ILRI
Jeff Mariner, the scientist who helped develop this thermo-tolerant version of the rinderpest vaccine, later joined us at the International Livestock Research Institute. Here he applied the same approach to developing a heat-tolerant vaccine against peste des petits ruminants (PPR), a highly contagious and deadly disease related to rinderpest and which affects 30 million sheep, goats and other small stock every year.
The disease has been identified in 76 different countries from Georgia to China, spreading quickly across Africa, Asia and the Middle East in the past 20 years. According to the global strategy for the control and eradication of PPR, all countries in Central and West Africa are particularly grappling with fighting the menace.
The initial success of this experimental PPR vaccine work — together with the global control and eradication strategy — gives us hope that we might eventually be able to tackle PPR in a similar way to rinderpest.
The role of R&D, surveillance
It is also a reminder of the importance of two critical factors in tackling disease: continuing investment in research and development, and the establishment of coordinated, consensus commitments to disease control, including early warning systems and a response plan. The first provides us with the innovations and tools to carry out disease control while the latter offers the terms that make it sustainable and effective, bringing together all key partners.
The development of vaccines that remain viable in variable warm temperatures addresses one of many vaccine challenges: how to get vaccines to wild animals such as in the case of rabies, getting multiple diseases covered by minimal vaccine shots, and persuading poor livestock keepers to participate in vaccination programmes. And all of these challenges require a rigorous and well-defined strategy to which stakeholders at every level can commit.
Reaching the last mile
Reaching the last mile is the hardest part in eradicating highly contagious diseases endemic in remote regions. While it is relatively straightforward to supress a viral disease in a given area over a given time, it is extremely difficult to prevent the virus from re-invading the area in future. That is why it was so remarkable that six years ago, the FAO was able to declare that the last mile, and inch, had been reached and the rinderpest virus eradicated from the world.
Using similar approaches, the global animal health community now has the end of PPR, rabies and foot-and-mouth disease in its sights. We learned from the rinderpest campaign that engaging and training local community animal health workers, and getting them the vital animal health products they need could vanquish even the most deadly and infectious of diseases.
Community animal health workers in Somaliland, for example, achieved 95 per cent vaccination efficiency — the highest levels ever reported in Africa since the PACE programme began. It is clear that trained locals play a vital role in delivering animal health services.
And it is now also clear that the eradication of rinderpest relied upon a fine balance of partnerships between, for example, scientists and extension services, between regional and national disease control organisations, and between veterinarians and local communities.
Six years on, the eradication of rinderpest— arguably the greatest success of veterinary medicine to date — offers invaluable lessons for replicating this achievement to end the blight of other animal diseases. I’ve had first-hand experience of the critical role played by vaccines in disease control. But just as essential, and much less understood, is the importance of getting the vaccines into all the right hands.
Delia Grace, a co-leader, Animal and Human Health at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), can be reached at [email protected]
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.