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Earth Reporters: Beating Plague

Updated Saturday, 21st May 2011

Episode three: Dr Dickens Chibeu works at the inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources based in Nairobi. He tells the story of his 30-year campaign to eradicate the destructive disease, Rinderpest

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Filming cows in Africa Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: tve In this episode Dr Dickens Chibeu, a veterinary epidemiologist from Kenya, tells the story of how one of the world’s most destructive diseases has been stamped out – after centuries of trying. The success was due in part to a breakthrough vaccination – and in part thanks to global collaboration.  What are the lessons for animal and human health – and for other kinds of international cooperation?


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Narrator: For centuries, a disease has ravaged the globe – visiting nearly all corners at one time or another. In Europe so great was the threat of this disease that in the early 18th century, the Pope commissioned one of his most trusted physicians to investigate. Giovanni Lancisi’s ‘De Bovilla Peste’, is his detailed study of the disease, and represents the first concerted effort to control it.

Historians believe that in 4th-century-Europe the cattle disease, rinderpest may have contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Since then Rinderpest has killed hundreds of millions of cattle worldwide. Untreated, it kills within days, wiping out whole herds and causing devastating economic losses wherever it has taken hold.

Mzee Lankas – Maasai herder: It was a bad disease, if the vetinary people didn’t come it would wipe out all the cattle that we owned

Narrator: But now a huge international campaign over the past generation has led to the announcement that rinderpest has been wiped from the face of the earth.

Peter Roeder: One of the most amazing things about this is that it only the second time in the history of the world that  disease has been eradicated.”

Narrator: One of the last pockets was in East Africa where cattle are crucial to the whole community – and where this man was central to co-ordinating the programme to eradicate the disease.

In this episode Dr Dickens Chibeu, a veterinary epidemiologist from Kenya, is our Earth Reporter. He tells the story of how one of the world’s most destructive diseases has been stamped out – after centuries of trying.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: A lot of people, don’t know, but the truth of the matter is, that livestock contributes about 30 percent of the agricultural GDP in Africa, and that is a very high contribution to the national economies.

My name is Dr Dickens Malanga Chibeu, I work for the inter African Bureau for Animal Resources based here in Nairobi. I have spent the last 30 years of my life fighting for the eradication of rinderpest.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: This is what the disease looked like, there was eye discharge, mouth sores, diahrrea and finally death of the animals.

Juan Lubroth: It spreads like wildfire in animals that have no protection so in a herd of 100 animals you can lose them all within 10 days.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: When I was growing up, actually I grew up on a farm, my father was a farmer, in the sixties and seventies and the vet department used to come and vaccinate animals, during August and it wasnt until after i joined campus (university) that I realised that the disease that they were vaccinating against was rinderpest

This disease affected many people’s livelihoods across the world, mostly that of pastoralists. Some of my most fulfilling professional experiences have been out in the field searching for rinderpest.

Rinderpest entered Eastern Africa through the port of Masawa in Ethiopia, the disease was actually brought in by the Italian army who had imported cattle all the way from India and once it got into Ethiopia it quickly spread in Ethiopia and all the neighbouring countries. In Kenya, the disease spread southwards and landed even in Maasailand, which we’re headed to right now.

We’re here to meet mzee Lankas who lives in in Ol Shabor, behind Kenya’s famous Ngong hills. He has kept cattle for years and this is a lifestyle that his children and grandchildren have inherited.

Cattle mean everything to the Maasai, which is why their good health is very important to them

Mzee Lankas: We slaughter our cows and eat their meat, we also drink their milk. We sell our cows to help educate our children. Selling the cows also enables us to buy things like cars when we need to. We buy land with the money from cows. Cows are very valuable to the Maasai.

Narrator: Mzee Lankas has a herd of over 200 cattle but things weren’t always this good in the past.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: I ask Mzee Lankas what diseases used to affect your cattle in the past?

Mzee Lankas: A lot of diseases used to affect our cattle: there’s foot and mouth disease, there’s also east coast fever disease. Our cattle are also affected by anthrax which was very bad and then there was also rinderpest disease.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: That disease called rinderpest. Is it still around now or what happened?

Mzee Lankas: Rinderpest is no longer there. The veterinary people got rid of it a long time ago

Dr Dickens Chibeu: This disease, rinderpest, did it look like this? Please look at these pictures and let me know if this is what it looked like.

Mzee Lankas: Yes. This is what the cows looked like. Yes diarrhoea, that’s how their mouths looked like. It was bad. If the veterinary people didn’t come it would wipe out all the cattle that we owned.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: Did you think that this disease would ever be eradicated

Mzee Lankas: We would just wait for the cattle to die. We didn’t think it would end.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: This disease affected the livelihoods and threatened the very existence of communities across the world. A cure had to be found.

Narrator: A key milestone in the battle against rinderpest came here on the outskirts of Nairobi – a significant achievement for African science

Dr Dickens Chibeu: The Veterinary Research institute in Muguga is important in the story of rinderpest. The rinderpest vaccine was developed here.

For hundreds of years the only way to control rinderpest was quarantine and stamping out.

But in the 1950s, Walter Plowright, A British researcher based here, began research on the rinderpest vaccine.

Narrator: The vaccine was known as the Plowright vaccine – it was a giant step forward, but it was to prove only part of the answer.

Dr Bouna Diop: The work done by Walter Plowright in collaboration here in Muga really something important in the rinderpest eradication programme. JP15 was an African Union programme in collaboration with FAO. The key objective is mainly one, to reduce the incidents of rinderpest in Africa. At the end of JP15, rinderpest was under control.

Ozawa: The JP15 campaign vaccination was successful but the campaign ended without follow up programme for surveillance, testing and to see if there was any remaining fosi in the same area.

Mariner: The vaccine that existed was called the Plowright vaccine and that was actually the impetus for JP15, the first attempt to eradicate rinderpest A single infectious particle of this vaccine actually lifelong immunity in cattle the only problem was you needed to keep it cold which created delivery problems.

Narrator: The heat sensitive vaccine could not survive in the hot, remote areas of Somalia, Ethiopia and Northern Kenya in the Somali ecosystem, which had the last remaining reservoirs of the disease.

To eradicate the disease from areas like this required two problems to be overcome: a vaccine that could be transported to remote areas – and a way of organising the disease control efforts across national boundaries.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: We are now headed to one place in Kenya where cattle is big business. Garissa, in North Eastern Kenya is home to the country’s biggest cattle market. It’s a long drive, but it will be worth it. Hopefully we’ll meet some transboundary pastoralists who have come to sell their cattle.

Garissa is very important in the whole process of rinderpest eradication. One, being a provincial headquarters, it the control post of north eastern province which fortunately or unfortunately was also in the Somali ecosystem

This area that we are entering is where the last pockets of rinderpest were in this whole region. It straddles 3 different countries and is known as the Somali ecosystem

This livestock market is the largest in the region, the Somali ecosystem. Pastoralists who come here come from as far as Somalia in the east (that direction), Ethiopia in the north and all the neighbouring counties, this region Mandera. Trans-boundary movement of livestock has been going on in this region for centuries

As usual the market is very busy and it can get busier. At times the market can have up to 8000 cattle.

We are here to meet Mr Haji, a trans-boundary pastoralist who just sold half his cattle this morning

I can see your cattle look very healthy. Have you sold these ones yet?

Haji Ibrahim Mohamud: Not Yet, not yet.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: What route did you take to get to this market?

Haji Ibrahim Mohamud: From Somalia I passed though the forest travelled along Tana River and arrived here

Dr Dickens Chibeu: Please tell me, what does nomadism mean to you, the people of Garissa?

Haji Ibrahim Mohamud: Nomadism is my whole life, I like keeping cattle it provides for all my needs. It’s a way of life that has been practiced for years by my parents, grandparents and many generations before them

Dr Dickens Chibeu: How do the people here benefit?

Haji Ibrahim Mohamud: It is impossible to count the number of people who benefit here. There are tow main ways that people benefit from cattle. There are those who bring their cattle from farms or pastoralists who travel with their cattle. Other people at the local market also benefit such as the local council, truck loaders and truck drivers who take the cattle to Nairobi
Mariner: Infectious diseases don’t respect boundaries, borders and so forth, so to have a good control programme, you have to have international cooperation amongst neighboUring countries.

The rinderpest program was somewhat unique and one of the real strengths was that we managed to generate a lot of interest and co-operation and by the end of the programme we managed to have an ecosystem approach rather than a country by country approach.

Narrator: The threat of rinderpest was finally about to disappear - for good. But what was the secret? It wasn’t just another vaccine, but a new way of organising the global effort. One with far reaching implications for other diseases – including those affecting other species: including humans.

The centuries long story of the battle against the cattle disease rinderpest brings us back to Rome where in the 18th century, Pope Clement commissioned the first organised study of the disease and efforts to suppress it.
Modern Rome is home to the headquarters of the organization that has been successful in coordinating the global eradication of a disease, that’s cost over a billion dollars in the past generation.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: “I’ve come to Rome with colleagues from around the world as part of the final stages of the global rinderpest eradication programme – which was co-ordinated from here.
I’m about to go into a session of top level people including government ministers from key countries

This meeting is for high level government officials from across the world have been invited to hear the progress that we’ve made with the eradication We’re letting them know that we have succeeded and very soon we’ll make the global announcement

Peter Roeder: There’s an air of jubilation because the director general has just made a statement which is far from being ambiguous its completely unambiguous that FAO considers that rinderpest has been eradicated. To hear him say that really adds something for all of us who have been working in it for so long.

Narrator: In the late 80s, after a second African pandemic, global animal health leaders convened in Rome and formulated a new plan to eliminate rinderpest – not only in Africa, but in the remaining reservoirs of the disease in West and South Asia. The new approach was to track and combat the disease across national borders, and in the remotest of areas.

It was this approach alongside a new thermostable vaccine, one capable of withstanding the heat – that began to spell success.

Mariner: The thermostable vaccine was important for enabling the programme in certain key areas particularly in Africa. As the heat stable vaccine became available we looked at new models for working with the pastoralists to actually train them to deliver the vaccine in the context of meeting some of their other animal health needs

Nur Kassim Abdi: When vaccines came they were very effective. Isolation of cattle and other control methods were reduced. There’s now a lot of movement of livestock looking for pasture and we sold more cattle so the vaccines were good. No more quarantine, trade is ok. Cattle can now move from one place to another without fearing rinderpest.

Mariner: One of the things we did and one of the things that came through as part of the rinderpest programme, was we really began to understand the knowledge level of traditional communities about major diseases. They know all the major diseases they can describe all the major diseases. They actually knew where disease was better than we did  At the end we identified the final fosi by tapping into these traditional information networks and letting them tell us where we needed to go and how we needed to do things.

Mariner: The final fosi were in remote and insecure places like Sudan and Somalia where veterinary services had trouble reaching

Narrator: So important was the control of rinderpest in Sudan that even the warring factions agreed to allow the vaccinations to continue.

Sudan Minister: During the war, there was an agreement between the government and rebels that vaccines should be carried out in both government and rebel controlled zones.

Declaration of Sudan free from rinderpest was cheer and tears for people of Sudan because they depend on livestock.

It is second to oil, we earn about 20% of our earnings from livestock.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: What happened here in East Africa is just an example of what has happened across the globe. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in even some of the most remote corners of the world.

Dr Rajasheker: The success of eradication of rinderpest in India I can attribute to one factor, that is government of India funded the entire programme and it was a top down approach. In ten years of rinderpest eradication the country was charged. Everyone was determined to see rinderpest eradicated.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: When Smallpox was eradicated a sample was kept. Now a decision has been taken to store samples of the virus for safekeeping, but to avoid any controversy, how will this be done?

Juan Lubroth: We’ve been able to learn quite a lot from the small pox eradication, not in terms of methodology but what’s coming to play in terms of rinderpest is making sure that the virus is safeguarded in laboratories, that there’s proper custodianship of the virus

Henray Wamwayi: In Africa, we as AU IBAR, we have secured the agreement that this virus be stored at the AU-Pan African virus centre...that has facilities that can safely store the virus.

If we store viruses all over there’s a risk of accidental escape…. or in these days of bioterrorism, malicious misuse, so we must ensure that it is stored in a safe laboratory.

Peter Roeder: One of the most amazing things is that it’s only the seconds time in the history of the world where a disease has been eradicated….the first was smallpox…and now we have rinderpest and this is a disease that has devastated the world for centuries.

And now, we’re excited that the lessons we have learnt can be fed into the progressive control of other animal diseases.

Juan Lubroth: And I don’t think the green revolution would have happened without the rinderpest vaccine, because those animals wouldn’t have been able to plough soil, take crops to the market. So I think a lot people whether they know it or not should be gratified that rinderpest has been eradicated.

Mariner: In the vetinary profession particularly in the countries that we’ve worked there is a greater appreciation for the knowledge and wisdom of the livestock owners and it really takes a team effort to bring together the modern knowledge with the communities knowledge to be successful.

Ozawa: Any campaign should have a follow-up programme to make sure that the campaign was successful and the disease has been wiped out. And this was the most essential part of the rinderpest campaign.

Wamwayi: The many lessons we have learned from the eradication of rinderpest include first of all the need for sustained political support and good will at all levels. At national level, at the regional level and globally. The second lesson is the need for partnerships. Productive partnerships between key technical institutions as well as national governments.

Dr Dickens Chibeu: Very many African countries believed they would not eradicate rinderpest in the near future…

When I saw it eradicated, I feel like I have achieved what I set out to achieve professionally.

For a lot of these people as you have heard, livestock is their livelihoods. And eradicating a disease like rinderpest that used to wipe out whole herds, what you’ve basically done is that you’ve secured their livelihoods.

Narrator: Anyone can be an earth reporter. To find out more about how to join the global conversation, go to

An article regarding Rinderpest - Laying a global cattle killer to rest - was published on the BBC News website on 20th May 2011.





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