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AFTER attaining the diagnostic capacity, Pakistan is now on its way to containing and eventually eradicating the ovine rinderpest disease, commonly known as peste des petits ruminants (PPR).

This contagious, fatal disease primarily affects goats and sheep, and is widespread and prevalent across the country.

Pakistan now has the diagnostic capacity to continue on the progressive control pathway for PPR thanks to a three-and-a-half-year project.

The project, funded by the United States and implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, is aimed at containing the spread of PPR in Pakistan and at mitigating its impacts to safeguard small ruminant-based livelihoods.

However, a challenge for the country will be to maintain the high level of diagnostic capacity for the next one or two decades.

FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) are mobilising the international community around a new global initiative: the fight to eradicate PPR by 2030.

In Pakistan, a national programme is now being framed to eradicate the plague by 2028, two years ahead of the target, according to Dr Qurban Ali, who until recently headed the National Veterinary Laboratory in Islamabad.

A $996.4 million plan launched by FAO and OIE is the first phase of what will be a 15-year effort to eradicate the plague.

A national programme is being framed to eradicate the peste des petits ruminants disease by 2028, two years ahead of the target

Today, more than 70 countries have confirmed PPR within their borders, and many countries are at risk of the disease being introduced. These regions are home to around 1.7 billion sheep and goats, which account for roughly 80 per cent of their global population.

PPR is a sister virus of rinderpest, which affects cows and buffaloes and was eradicated in Pakistan by 2007. In 1994-94, around 40,000 cattle died in the northern areas due to rinderpest.

An evaluation by FAO says the project has helped raised farmers’ awareness of the clinical signs and dangers posed by the disease, and prevention measures.

There are two main challenges for the implementation of the progressive control pathway for PPR in Pakistan. The first is to scale up farmers’ awareness, field surveillance and vaccination throughout the country, all of which must be underpinned by epidemiology.

It is also important to place much greater emphasis on control in difficult areas and highly mobile small ruminant populations.

The second challenge is to develop a long-term programme for this work which will require much more time than a single project.

The team which evaluated the project at completion recommended that FAO and federal and provincial governments together with strategic development partners prepare and implement a long-term programme to support the country to follow the progressive control pathway for PPR.

The project delivered disease surveillance, laboratory diagnosis, improved vaccine production and demonstrations of the effectiveness of correctly administered quality vaccine in the field. Without these inputs, Pakistan could not proceed on the progressive control pathway to PPR.

According to officials, the project substantially strengthened the federal and provincial diagnostic capacity to diagnose PPR. Routine diagnostic testing has been installed at two federal laboratories and at one laboratory in each province.

The strengthened laboratories confirmed PPR in 2,339 sets of samples submitted from 3,166 outbreaks. In addition, advanced diagnostic laboratory techniques have been installed at the National Veterinary Laboratory in Islamabad, improving Pakistan’s ability to carry out more detailed studies without having to export samples to global reference laboratories.

PPR vaccine production at the main manufacturing laboratory, at the Veterinary Research Institute (VRI) in Lahore, appears to have been significantly increased and improved, though there have been delays.

The project directly supported the VRI to establish the production of around 500,000 vaccine doses per month. Quality assurance capacity has been strengthened at the National Veterinary Laboratory in Islamabad, where quality control systems have been set up.

VRI director in Lahore, Dr Muhammad Iqbal, said that by the end of this year the entire 22 million goats and sheep in Punjab will be protected from the PPR plague. A specific department of the Punjab livestock department is working in all the 36 districts of the province to train smallholders.

The project has substantially improved surveillance and reporting of PPR outbreaks by strengthening the provincial veterinary services throughout Pakistan. As a result, the number of reports of PPR cases has increased from 261 in the first year of the project to 1,124 in the second and 1,781 in the third year, for a total of 3,166.

While surveillance coverage still needs to rise, these early results begin to disclose and uncover the extent of PPR’s presence in Pakistan, the FAO evaluation report notes.

The project also demonstrated the preventive effect of vaccination at six sites with almost 60,000 herd owners. It showed the importance of using quality assured and correctly administered vaccine and the importance of the cold chain for its storage, distribution and use.

The project’s impact has been to provide Pakistan with the essential technical tools to begin the progressive control pathway for PPR. Provincial and federal authorities need to take up and use these tools to eradicate the disease.

If this can be achieved, the potential impact of the project for safeguarding small ruminant-based livelihoods from this frequently fatal disease is enormous, points out the evaluation.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 12th, 2017