Rinderpest, a deadly cattle plague and once the bane of farmers, is heading toward extinction, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced on Monday.

The Rome-based agency said that some time in the next 18 months, the FAO, jointly with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and other partners will officially declare the eradication of Rinderpest, one of the most devastating animal diseases known to man.

Chief veterinary officers and representatives from around 50 countries are meeting at the FAO headquarters in Rome till Dec. 2 to review the current situation and discuss activities in post-eradication phase.

It will be the first time in history that humankind has succeeded in terminating an animal disease and only the second time a disease has been eradicated as the result of human efforts (the first was smallpox in 1980),according to FAO.

Rinderpest does not affect humans directly but is lethal to the cattle and hoofed animals. Death rates during outbreaks can approach 100 percent.

Caused by a virus and spread by contacts and contaminated materials, Rinderpest has destroyed countless millions of cattle, causing staggering economic losses and contributing to famine and social unrest for thousands of years.

Although some countries made progress during the 20th century in dealing with the disease on their own territory, it continued to survive and thrive in others, forming reservoirs from which it regularly broke out.

Starting in the late 1980s, the FAO began combating the disease through a high-level umbrella program linking together national and regional activities into a concerted worldwide campaign.

In 1994 the Global Rinderpest Eradication Program was launched, based on a series of activities such as teaching farmers how to recognize and report the disease, and establishing emergency response plans, biosecurity protocols, and technological transfers to needy countries.

Thanks to such coordinated actions, between 1994 and 2009, around 170 countries and territories succeeded in eliminating Rinderpest. The results have been a major gain in food production, income for farmers and biodiversity levels worldwide.

“When you think about it, it's quite remarkable to see where we stand today,” said Juan Lubroth, FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer. “This is a disease that has been an absolute scourge in agriculture for millennia.

But if you look at it another way, the solution was simple. We had the know-how. We had the vaccine. What was missing was, in the first place, adequate and targeted investment, and, secondly, a cohesive global coordinating mechanism. Once we had those, solving the problem was just a matter of time,” he added.

Keywords: RinderpestRomecattle plagueUNFAO