A cattle disease that has caused hardship and hunger for millennia has been eliminated from the world, the United Nations formally announced Tuesday.

The vanquishing of rinderpest, a deadly cattle disease, represents only the second time a plague has been globally eradicated through human efforts. The first to be eliminated was smallpox.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization led a global program established in 1994 to help farmers recognize the disease and control it through vaccination campaigns, eventually eliminating the scourge.

Rinderpest, which means "cattle plague" in German, does not affect humans directly. But it's a highly infectious viral disease that can kill entire herds of cattle within a few days, with symptoms of high fever, a discharge from eyes, nose and mouth and frothy saliva.

A rinderpest plague in Africa in the 19th century killed 80 to 90 per cent of the cattle in sub-Saharan Africa and caused widespread hunger. The UN says one-third of the people of Ethiopia died in the subsequent famine.

At its peak in the 1920s, the disease could be found from the southern tip of Africa to Scandinavia, in Russia and central Europe, the Philippines, Brazil and Australia. An outbreak in much of Africa from 1982-84 is estimated to have caused $500 million in losses. The most recent outbreak occurred among wild buffalo in Kenya in 2001, and the last vaccination occurred in 2006.

The disease no longer circulates among animals, the FAO said, but samples of the rinderpest virus and vaccines will be kept in highly secure laboratories and surveillance for the disease continued.

Efforts to eradicate rinderpest since 1945 have cost an estimated $5 billion.

Jacques Diouf, the director general of the FAO, said that the elimination of rinderpest shows that "the world has the means to eliminate hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty."

The organization has 156 veterinarians working worldwide to control infectious diseases and parasites that affect domestic and wild animals.