Deadly livestock virus threatening to break out of Africa, UN agency warns
A devastating livestock virus is on the verge of breaking out of its last stronghold from northeastern Kenya and southern Somalia, threatening recent progress in eradicating the disease, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today.
Experts are increasingly confident that recent national eradication campaigns have freed three of the last remaining reservoirs of the rinderpest – in Sudan, Pakistan and Yemen – of the disease. But while the virus persists in the southern part of the so-called Somali pastoral ecosystem, not only nearby areas of Africa are at risk from reinfection by the movement of cattle, but trade in cattle could carry the virus across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula or, according to recent reports, even further afield to Southeast Asia.
"The Somali pastoral ecosystem is our great challenge now," said Dr. Peter Roeder, Secretary of the FAO Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme, which is working to eradicate the disease by 2010. "It is almost certainly the last refuge of the rinderpest virus in the world."
The rinderpest, which human beings cannot catch, kills entire herds that belong to small-scale dairy farmers or tribal herders who depend on cattle for their food and livelihoods. An outbreak in Africa in 1982 to 1984 caused losses of $2 billion.
"The world is very vulnerable to a devastating resurgence of rinderpest should progress falter," Dr. Roeder warned. He noted that the virus has repeatedly broken out of the Somali ecosystem before and spread as far as eastern Kenya and into Tanzania, most recently in the mid 1990s, affecting cattle and killing wildlife.
“Recent reports that traders are arranging to start exporting cattle to southeast Asia are also most disturbing, raising fears that the virus may reinfect a part of the world free from the disease since the 1950s,” he added.