Eliminating sheep and goat plague will boost livelihoods, nutrition, says UN official at conference

31 March 2015 – The United Nations agricultural agency will outline a strategy in Côte d’Ivoire today for the total eradication of sheep and goat plague by 2030 at an international conference that began today in the country’s capital, Abidjan.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) aim to tackle the disease, known as Ovine Rinderpest – or Peste des petits ruminants (PPR) – and free hundreds of millions of rural families from one of the major risks to their food security and livelihood.

“The positive impact on the livelihoods of farmers and food and nutrition security for all communities, Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations’ Zero Hunger Challenge will be substantial,” said the FAO Assistant Director-General for Africa, Bukar Tijani, as he opened the International Conference for the Control and Eradication of PPR.

The disease, which can kill up to 90 per cent of the animals it infects, was first diagnosed in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1940s and has expanded rapidly in the past 15 years, reaching 70 countries across South and East Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and threatening Europe.

Livestock health experts from the FAO and the OIE say the technical tools, including an inexpensive, safe and reliable vaccine and simple diagnostic tests already exist, and they have a developed a three-pronged strategy to control and eradicate PPR focusing on targeting the approach, strengthening veterinary services and looking at other diseases that might be priorities in a given country or region.

The two organizations worked together on a previous joint campaign which eradicated bovine rinderpest, a catastrophic cattle plague that was responsible for famines and the collapse of empires, and which remains the only animal disease to have been eradicated. There are key similarities that experts think make PPR an apt target for a campaign aimed at outright eradication.

“First of all, the viruses belong to the same family. Some of the tools that were developed for rinderpest have actually been adapted to be used for Peste de petits ruminants,” said Juan Lubroth, FAO’s Chief Veterinary officer in Rome. “Other aspects of the rinderpest campaign were regional networks that became so, so important to implement the strategy. Well, the same will be done for Peste de petits ruminants. So certainly there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from that.”

There are ample economic incentives to learn those lessons and apply them to targeting the complete eradication of PPR, not least the $1.45 billion to $2.1 billion of losses directly attributable to the disease as well as much more stemming from restrictions on trade and livestock mobility triggered by outbreaks.

In addition, over 2 billion small ruminants worldwide, 80 per cent of which are in affected regions, represent an important asset for a third of poor rural households in developing countries. Sheep and goats readily adapt to harsh environments, provide year-round protein and dairy products, and income from wool and leather, and they contribute to greater gender equity because of the role women play in tending to them.

“Sheep and goats – or, goats at least – are often referred to as the poor person’s cow,” said Mr. Lubroth. “So, if you are a poor farmer or in poor communities, the role of sheep and goats is very, very important.”

Funding for and political commitment to the campaign would be vital, not least because the global price tag for poorly-targeted PPR vaccinations are anyway likely to run between $4 and $5.5 billion over the next 15 years. FAO and OIE believe that focusing on elimination will reduce the costs currently associated with battling outbreaks and new incursions.

“One of the lessons of rinderpest was that we did not have the financial resources to be able to do a faster job among the countries or the continents affected,” said Mr. Lubroth. “We want to avoid some of those lessons and be able to get the financial resources available now, during and in the post-PPR campaign to ensure the world is free from PPR.”