PARIS (Reuters) - A global effort has eradicated the cattle disease rinderpest, which caused the starvation of millions of people, making it the second disease after smallpox to be wiped out by humankind, world animal health body OIE said.
Rinderpest, known before the Roman era and also called cattle plague, did not affect humans directly but caused major famines by killing hundreds of millions of cattle in Europe, Africa and Asia.
After the disease reached Africa in the 19th century, one rinderpest pandemic is estimated to have been responsible for the starvation of one-third of the human population of Ethiopia.
"Today we witness a historical event as rinderpest is the first animal disease ever to be eradicated by humankind," OIE Director General Bernard Vallat said on Wednesday at the organization's annual gathering.
The Paris-based body said the 198 countries with rinderpest-susceptible animals had been declared free of the disease following steps implemented with support from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Yacouba Samake, OIE Regional Representative for Africa, underlined the enormous harm the disease had done.
"These animals are used for work but also for milk and meat. If the disease hits the herd, all these high-quality proteins, you can forget them, it's a catastrophe," Samake told Reuters.
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Many species of wild and domestic cloven-hoofed animals, including sheep and goats, showed symptoms of the disease when infected, but mortality could reach 100 percent in cattle or buffalo herds that are highly susceptible.
The Americas and Oceania never faced rinderpest epidemics, said the OIE -- the World Organization for Animal Health.
Smallpox, a highly contagious disease in humans that killed Queen Mary II of England and King Louis XV of France and threatened 60 percent of the world's population, eluded treatment until a vaccine was found in the 1950s.
As in the case of rinderpest, it was a global campaign that led to the eradication of smallpox, which was officially recognized by the World Health Organization in 1980.
An outbreak of rinderpest in imported animals in Belgium in 1920 was the impetus for international cooperation in controlling animal diseases and was a key factor leading to the creation in 1924 of the OIE (Office International des Epizooties), the body said.
To ensure the full eradication the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP), coordinated by the FAO in collaboration with the OIE and major donors such as the European Commission, was initiated in the 1980s.
(Editing by Anthony Barker)