Why technical breakthroughs matter: They helped drive a cattle plague to extinction

Community animal health worker vaccinating animals against rinderpest in Karamajong, Uganda

Tom Olaka, a community animal health worker in Karamajong, northern Uganda, was part of a vaccination campaign in remote areas of the Horn of Africa that drove the cattle plague rinderpest to extinction in 2010 (photo credit: Christine Jost).

A superb example of why technical breakthroughs matter is reported in the current issue (22 October 2010) of the leading science journal, Science.

The eradication of rinderpest from the face of the earth, probably the most remarkable achievement in the history of veterinary science, is a milestone expected to be announced in mid-2011 pending a review of final official disease status reports from a handful of countries to the World Organisation for Animal Health.

A plague of cattle and wild ungulates, rinderpest would not have been eradicated without such a technical breakthrough. This was the development of an improved vaccine that did not require a 'cold chain' and thus could be administered in some of the most inhospitable regions in the Horn of Africa, where the virus was able to persist due to lack of vaccination campaigns in these hotspots.

Rinderpest is a viral livestock disease that has afflicted Europe, Asia and Africa for centuries. It killed more than 90 per cent of the domesticated animals, as well as untold numbers of people and plains game, in Africa at the turn of the 19th century, a devastation so complete that its impacts are still felt today, more than a century later. The last-known outbreak of rinderpest occurred in Kenya in 2001.

The key technical breakthrough in this effort involved development of an improved vaccine against rinderpest. The original vaccine was developed at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) laboratories. In 1990, Jeffrey Mariner, a veterinary epidemiologist who at that time was at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and working with the Africa Union-Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), improved the vaccine by producing a thermostable version that did not require refrigeration up to the point of use. This allowed vets and technicians to backpack the vaccine into remote war-torn areas, where vet services had broken down and international agencies dared not send personnel. The AU-IBAR led the Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign, which coordinated the efforts that resulted in the eventual eradication of rinderpest from Africa.

Now working in the Nairobi laboratories of at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Mariner says that just as important as this technological advance was getting the development community to begin to address how people work together. Mariner and his colleagues at AU-IBAR themselves took three innovations as lessons from the rinderpest eradication campaign: (1) community-based vaccination programs, (2) participatory surveillance systems based on local knowledge, and (3) optimized control strategies that target high-risk communities through.

‘We must examine issues from the perspective of each group of stakeholders involved and visualize how proposed changes would affect them,’ says Mariner. ‘The power relationships of the groups also need to be considered. Advocates for change must then craft a new vision for how the various stakeholder groups will function that is sufficiently exciting to get people to risk change.’

Excerpts from the Science article, by Dennis Normille, follow.
'Rinderpest, an infectious disease that has decimated cattle and devastated their keepers for millennia, is gone. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced on 14 October in Rome that a 16-year eradication effort has succeeded and fieldwork has ended.

'“This is the first time that an animal disease is being eradicated in the world and the second disease in human history after smallpox,” FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said in his World Food Day address in Rome the next day.

'“It is probably the most remarkable achievement in the history of veterinary science,” says Peter Roeder, a British veterinarian involved with FAO’s Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) from its launch in 1994 until he retired in 2007. For the veterinarians who participated in the effort, the achievement is particularly poignant. . . .

'One formality remains: The Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) still must complete the certification of a handful of countries as rinderpest free. OIE is likely to adopt an official declaration recognizing the demise of the disease at its May assembly. Meanwhile, animal-disease fighters have already been applying lessons learned from the rinderpest campaign and pondering which animal disease might be the next target for eradication.

'Although nearly forgotten in much of the West, as recently as the early 1900s, outbreaks of rinderpest—from the German for “cattle plague”—regularly ravaged cattle herds across Eurasia, often claiming one-third of the calves in any herd. The virus, a relative of those that cause canine distemper and human measles, spreads through exhaled droplets and feces of sick animals, causing fever, diarrhea, dehydration, and death in a matter of days. It primarily affects young animals; those that survive an infection are immune for life.

'When the virus hit previously unexposed herds, the impact was horrific. In less than a decade after the virus was inadvertently introduced to the horn of Africa in 1889, it spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, killing 90% of the cattle and a large proportion of domestic oxen used for plowing and decimating wild buffalo, giraffe, and wildebeest populations. With herding, farming, and hunting devastated, famine claimed an estimated one-third of the population of Ethiopia and two-thirds of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania. . . .

'In 1994, when rinderpest was entrenched in central Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and a swath stretching from Turkey through India and to Sri Lanka, FAO brought together three regional rinderpest-control programs into GREP and set the goal of eliminating the disease by 2010. . . .

'The key technical breakthrough was the recognition that the virus was re-emerging from just a handful of reservoirs that could be the targets of intensive surveillance and vaccination campaigns. In 1990, Jeffrey Mariner, then at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine (now the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine), had developed an improved vaccine that did not require refrigeration up to the point of use. This allowed vets and technicians to backpack vaccine into remote areas. One of the reservoirs was in the heart of war-torn eastern Africa, where vet services had broken down and international agencies dared not send personnel. GREP relied on local pastoralists to track the disease and on trained community animal health workers to administer the vaccine to quell outbreaks.

'. . . The virus was last detected in 2001 in wild buffaloes in Meru National Park in Kenya, on the edge of the Somali ecosystem.

'What comes next? Some veterinary experts question whether the international community is ready to take on another massive eradication campaign, but one disease mentioned as a possible eradication target is peste des petites ruminants (PPR), which is highly contagious and lethal among sheep and goats. Related to the rinderpest virus, the PPR virus has long circulated in central Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent and has recently spread to Morocco. . . .'

ILRI's Jeff Mariner is now working on an improved vaccine for this disease.


Read the whole article at Science (registration needed to read the full article): Rinderpest, deadly for cattle, joins smallpox as a vanquished disease, 22 October 2010.

To find out what the eradication of rinderpest means for livestock farmers around the world, listen to the following interview featuring John McDermott, ILRI's deputy director general.

Scientists argue the importance of Africa’s diverse livestock — and the need for genebanks to conserve them

Steve Kemp, a geneticist at the Nairobi laboratories of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) for both ILRI and the University of Liverpool, argues in this short video (2:24 minutes) the new opportunities — as well as urgent need — for exploring the remarkably rich livestock diversity that evolved and still exists on the highly diverse African continent.

‘We need to study the genetics of the animals,’ he says, as well as ‘the farming systems in which they are being used and their production characteristics. And that has never been done systematically in situ across this extraordinary diversity of African livestock.’ Kemp describes fast-improving technologies in the ‘new genetics’ — technologies that are allowing scientists, for the first time, to attempt these very broad kinds of genetic analyses. And he makes a case for establishing livestock genebanks to help preserve the continent’s livestock diversity, which is rapidly being lost. ‘Unless you move relatively quickly,’ warns Kemp, ‘there’ll be nothing left to study.’ Kemp makes these points in an article published in a June 2010 issue of the international journal Science. The co-authors of the article are Tadelle Dessie, an ILRI livestock breeding specialist based at ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Olivier Hanotte, a geneticist that formerly worked at ILRI and now directs a Frozen Ark initiative at the University of Nottingham, in the UK. Although genebanks are an important ‘stop-gap’ for preserving livestock diversity, says Kemp, his article makes the point that ‘at the same time that you bank, you must understand the characteristics of what you’re preserving.' 'ILRI is well positioned to catalyze this kind of research,’ Kemp says. ‘It has strong links with Africa and with African partners, who have access to the livestock. It has the mix of skills it needs to understand the function of livestock, right across the spectrum from disease resistance to their role in the marketplace. And it also has the technology — the molecular tools and the informatics tools — to allow us to begin this process.’ ‘But ILRI cannot perform any of this analysis alone,’ warns Kemp. ‘It needs to network with partners in the West and across Africa.’

Science: 'Time to tap Africa's livestock genomes', 25 Jun 2010

BBC News: 'African livestock offers untapped genetic resource', 24 Jun 2010

Animal agriculture can help sustain the new ‘food frontiers’ that should feed the world’s growing populations

Evolution of Uganda's dairy systems

Voice of America reported yesterday (‘Regulation Can’t Keep Pace with Livestock’, 22 Feb 2010) that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that ‘livestock production is growing faster than our capacity to safely manage it’. A new FAO report, The State of Food and Agriculture, underscores the importance of supporting the world’s one billion poor people who depend on livestock to make their living.

What poor animal keepers need, say scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is a ‘third way’ of producing milk, meat and eggs that copies neither harmful industrial-scale factory farming of animals in rich countries nor inefficient subsistence-level practices currently used to wrest a living off marginal lands in poor countries. ILRI staff argue, most recently in the world’s leading science journal, Science (‘Smart Investments in Sustainable Food Production: Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems’, 12 Feb 2010), that more sustainable animal agriculture is particularly needed in developing countries, where livestock production is growing fast, natural resources are being degraded and lost, and small-scale mixed crop-and-livestock farmers are already feeding most of the world’s poor people. The authors of the Science paper, who come from ILRI and other centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), also see this ‘third way’ of livestock production as particularly vital for the new ‘food frontiers’ of the world. These, they say, are the many farmlands currently being used to raise animals as well as to produce maize, rice and other major food crops that lie between the high- and low-potential agricultural lands of developing countries.

‘It is these relatively extensive medium-potential mixed-production farmlands that have been neglected until now,’ says lead author and ILRI scientist Mario Herrero, ‘that should now be the focus of agricultural development policymakers and aid agencies. These are the lands that are key to feeding the world’s extra 3 billion people over the next 4 decades. Click here for the Voice of America news item about the FAO study. Click here to read the Science paper by ILRI and other CGIAR researchers on the import of mixed and extensive crop-livestock farming for food security.

ILRI study published today in Science special issue on food security

A paper written by several centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Smart Investments in Sustainable Food Production: Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems, is published in the current issue (12 February 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5967, pp. 822–825) of Science magazine. The paper argues that the world's small-scale mixed crop-and-livestock farmers are the farmers feeding most of the world's poor today, are the farmers likely to feed most of the world's growing poor populations tomorrow, and are the farmers most neglected by current investments and policies worldwide. Lead author Mario Herrero, an agricultural systems analyst at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), says that with the right investments and policy support, the 'relatively extensive' mixed crop-livestock farming systems – located in most tropical developing regions of the world between intensively farmed fertile highlands and semi-arid low rangelands – could be the future breadbaskets of the developing world. The abstract of the paper follows. Smart Investments in Sustainable Food Production: Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems M. Herrero P. K. Thornton, A. M. Notenbaert, S. Wood, S. Msangi, H. A. Freeman, D. Bossio, J. Dixon, M. Peters, J. van de Steeg, J. Lynam, P. Parthasarathy Rao, S. Macmillan, B. Gerard, J. McDermott, C. Seré, M. Rosegrant Farmers in mixed crop-livestock systems produce about half of the world’s food. In small holdings around the world, livestock are reared mostly on grass, browse, and nonfood biomass from maize, millet, rice and sorghum crops, and in their turn supply manure and traction for future crops. Animals act as insurance against hard times and supply farmers with a source of regular income from sales of milk, eggs and other products. Thus, faced with population growth and climate change, small-holder farmers should be the first target for policies to intensify production by carefully managed inputs of fertilizer, water and feed to minimize waste and environmental impact, supported by improved access to markets, new varieties and technologies. Read the full text

Wellcome Trust, Science seek to stem upsurge in animal disease emergencies hitting developing countries

Researchers are converging in Cambridge, UK, to find ways of translating research findings faster into pro-poor animal health policy and practice.
Rift Valley fever, which continues to spread in East Africa, killing more than 90 people in Kenya alone, brings into sharp focus the inadequacies of animal health delivery systems in developing countries and the role of the global community in redressing these. This mosquito-transmitted disease is also hurting the livelihoods of poor people by killing their young cattle and sheep and causing ‘abortion storms’ in their pregnant stock.

Brian Perry, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), argues today (19 January 2007) in Science, a leading scientific journal, that animal diseases impeding livestock enterprises in developing countries are being ignored by the global community, leaving developing countries stranded with outmoded disease control systems that serve neither the needs of the poor nor the global community. In his article, ‘Science for Development: Poverty Reduction through Animal Health’, Perry and co-writer Keith Sones argue that the global community needs to give greater thought and investment to building scientific capacity in animal health research within developing countries.

Perry’s article explores opportunities afforded by science to help resolve this mismatch. Perry also points out high-priority areas requiring new funding. The article sets the tone for a high-level conference on animal health research taking place in Cambridge, UK, next week, at which Dr Perry and other ILRI colleagues will be presenting their research findings to an international group of experts. The conference is co-sponsored by the Wellcome Trust (UK) and Science.

To obtain the article by Brian Perry, ‘Science for Development: Poverty Reduction through Animal Health’ (Science, Vol. 315. no. 5810, pp. 333–334), please contact the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at +1 202-326-6440 or scipak@aaas.org. Or get the article online (subscription required) at: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/315/5810/333.

For interviews, contact Catherine Mgendi at +254 20 422 3035 or cell: +254 726 243 046; c.mgendi@cgiar.org.
Or contact Brian Perry direct at +254 20 422 3000; b.perry@cgiar.org