By United Nations
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24 January - A deadly cattle plague that has brought famine, agricultural havoc and economic ruin to herders for millennia, will officially be declared eradicated in June, a first ever in the battle against animal diseases and a highlight of World Veterinary Year, a senior United Nations official said today.

Rinderpest, a highly infectious viral disease with high fever, discharge from eyes, nose and mouth and frothy saliva, does not directly affect humans but it takes just a few days for a sick animal to die and it can wipe out whole herds. The last known outbreak occurred in Kenya in 2001.

“This will be the first time in human history that a zoonotic disease will have been totally eradicated and only the second time, after the victory over smallpox, that any disease has been totally stamped out of existence,” the Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jacques Diouf, said at the opening ceremony of World Veterinary Year in Versailles, France, today.

The FAO and the intergovernmental World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) will be able to announce the total elimination from the planet of the bovine disease “in only a few months time,” pending a review of final official status reports, he said.

Mr. Diouf stressed the important role played by FAO, together with its member states and other concerned institutions, in the fight against the numerous zoonotic diseases, including the measures it took jointly with the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and OIE to fight the recent Avian Flu H5N1 pandemic, which did infect humans.

“Animal diseases, according to some estimates, cause losses of between 25 and 33 per cent in world animal production and the veterinary profession is constantly being forced to deal with new challenges such as new diseases affecting aquaculture and the effects of climate change,” the FAO chief said.

FAO currently has 156 veterinarians working worldwide, dealing primarily with infectious diseases and parasites that affect domestic and wild animals.

A rinderpest epidemic in the 1890s killed 80 to 90 per cent of all cattle in sub-Saharan Africa, triggering widespread hunger in which a third of all people in Ethiopia are estimated to have died of starvation. The disease reached its peak in the 1920s, and at one time, its footprint extended from Scandinavia to the Cape of Good Hope and from Africa's Atlantic shore to the Philippine archipelago.

Outbreaks have also been reported in Brazil and Australia; an outbreak that raged across much of Africa in 1982-84 is estimated to have cost at least $500 million.

Along with the announcement on rinderpest, FAO indicated that there will be three other major events to mark World Veterinary Year: a world conference on teaching veterinary sciences in Lyon, France in May; a symposium in Rome in June on the history of animal diseases; and an international ceremony winding up the Year in Cape Town, South Africa, in October.

The Year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of the veterinary profession and science in 1761, when King Louis XV of France, troubled by the ongoing scourge of cattle disease, proposed that a veterinary school should be founded in Lyon. FAO is one of the institutional partners for the commemoration of World Veterinary Year.