Rinderpest eradicated

International organizations declare "cattle plague" dead
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Rinderpest caused hundreds of millions of animal deaths that preceded famines in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

After centuries of efforts to prevent outbreaks of the disease, international authorities announced in May that the disease was the second, after smallpox, to be eradicated through human efforts.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) proclaimed May 25 that all 198 countries and territories with rinderpest-susceptible animals were free of the disease, and, at press time, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was expected to declare June 28 that the disease has been eradicated. The announcements indicate the morbillivirus that caused rinderpest remains only in laboratories.

Veterinarian holds a blood sample
A veterinarian in Padukka, Sri Lanka, holds a blood sample taken for rinderpest testing. (Courtesy of FAO/Ishara Kodikara)

Efforts to fight the "cattle plague" were connected with the 1761 founding of the world's first veterinary school in Lyon, France, and the 1924 founding of the OIE. FAO information indicates rinderpest epizootics were also associated with the fall of the Roman Empire, the conquest of Christian Europe by Charlemagne, the French Revolution, the impoverishment of Russia, and extensive famines in Africa.

"Century after century, it swept around Europe and Asia with every military campaign, leaving disaster, death, and devastation behind it," FAO information states.

Outbreaks killed millions of animals in the 1980s alone in Africa, southern Asia, and the Middle East, and a 1994 outbreak in Pakistan killed tens of thousands of cattle, buffalo, and yak, according to the FAO. The last confirmed outbreak was in 2001, when buffalo were found to be infected in Kenya.

Giovanni Lancisi develops disease control measures in response to rinderpest outbreaks
Attempts to vaccinate animals against rinderpest occur in England and the Netherlands
First veterinary school founded in Lyon, France
First African veterinary school formed in Egypt
First International Veterinary Congress held
First Asian civilian veterinary school formed in India
World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) founded
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations formed
Field use begins for attenuated-live virus rinderpest vaccine developed by Dr. Walter Plowright
Pandemic starts in Afghanistan, by 1971 reaches Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Yemen
Rinderpest spreads from Ethiopia to Sudan; will affect 18 countries in the 1980s
Smallpox declared eradicated
FAO launches Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme
Last confirmed rinderpest outbreak in Kenyan buffalo
Last known use of rinderpest vaccine
OIE and FAO declare rinderpest has been eradicated worldwide
Sources: "Rinderpest and Peste des Petits Ruminants," "Virus Diseases of Food Animals," FAO

Rinderpest, or "cattle plague," was a viral disease that affected cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and wild animals such as antelope, giraffe, kudu, and wart hogs. It could kill entire naïve cattle and buffalo herds, but susceptibility varied among species. Signs of infection in susceptible animals included fever, erosive lesions in the mouth, discharge from the eyes and nose, profuse diarrhea, and dehydration.
Sources: World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and "Rinderpest and Pestes des Petits Ruminants"


The eradication of rinderpest is a tremendous achievement for every veterinarian everywhere, and it shows the progress of the veterinary profession, both in developed countries but also in countries that are still growing in their capacity and still developing in their veterinary infrastructures.

Dr. Peter Cowen, associate professor of epidemiology and public health, North Carolina State University

Dr. Peter Cowen, who is an associate professor of epidemiology and public health at North Carolina State University and whose work has focused on disease control and eradication, said rinderpest's eradication shows the effectiveness and potential benefits of interdependent global veterinary services.

"The eradication of rinderpest is a tremendous achievement for every veterinarian everywhere, and it shows the progress of the veterinary profession, both in developed countries but also in countries that are still growing in their capacity and still developing in their veterinary infrastructures," Dr. Cowen said. "It's not evenly spread, but we've been very efficient about using the capacity, where it exists, to be effective in places where it doesn't."

Dr. Cowen hopes that effective and convincing post-eradication surveillance will show national and international organizations, such as the World Bank and U.N. agencies, that veterinary medicine can solve global problems.

"When you invest in veterinary medicine, you're really investing in the well-being of society because of the central role of animals in society," Dr. Cowen said.

Outbreaks described as early as fourth century

The 2006 book "Rinderpest and Peste des Petits Ruminants" states that rinderpest originated in Asia but frequently spread to Europe, and spread to Africa during the 1800s.

The viral disease affects cattle, buffalo, yak, and wild ungulates, with infected animals typically dying about a week after developing clinical signs of the disease. The disease can kill entire herds of susceptible animals, according to the OIE.

The book notes that it may be rinderpest that is being described in accounts of a highly contagious disease that spread as Huns entered Europe in 370, and Mongol invasions in the 1200s were connected with rinderpest pandemics. It also indicates rinderpest was probably the first agro-biological weapon used against agriculture, as invaders to Europe brought Grey Steppe oxen that shed the rinderpest virus yet had strong innate resistance to the disease.

This illustration depicts the impact of rinderpest in the Netherlands in the 1700s. Courtesy of the World Organisation for Animal Health

The devastation in Europe during the 18th century was so severe that the College of Cardinals in Rome commissioned Pope Clement XI's personal physician, Giovanni Lancisi, to provide guidance on the disease, according to the 1981 book "Virus Diseases of Food Animals." The physician recommended in 1714 halting cattle movement, slaughtering infected animals, and deeply burying bodies of infected animals, yet rinderpest killed more than 200 million cattle in western Europe between 1711 and 1769.

Lancisi's recommendations paved the way for eradication of cattle plague in Europe through measures such as cleaning and decontamination and the quarantine of infected and exposed animals and people, according to "Rinderpest and Peste des Petits Ruminants."

Rinderpest's impact in Europe in the 1850s and 1860s led to the organization of the first International Veterinary Congress in 1863, according to "Virus Diseases of Food Animals." Outbreaks in 1920 in Belgium and Brazil also led to the founding of the OIE in Paris, and other epizootics spurred development of the first African veterinary school in Egypt in 1827 and the first Asian civilian veterinary school in 1872 in India.

Dr. Cowen said rinderpest was likely the most devastating disease of cattle worldwide, and the mass animal deaths caused mass human starvation in part because of the extensive use of animals in planting. The disease has acute effects and causes up to 90 percent mortality in affected herds, making it a "true plague," he said.

Starting in Ethiopia in the 1880s, "It spread throughout Africa in four years, and it was just devastating everywhere," Dr. Cowen said.

20th century eradication efforts

In the 1950s, Dr. Walter Plowright, a British veterinarian, and his colleagues developed in Kenya an attenuated-live virus rinderpest vaccine that proved to be safe and economical. Dr. Plowright, who won the World Food Prize in 1999, died in February 2010.

"Dr. Plowright's contributions to developing and perfecting the vaccine for rinderpest have made its eradication, for the first time in human history, a practical objective," according to the World Food Prize Foundation.

Dr. Elankumaran Subbiah, an assistant professor of virology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, described Plowright's vaccine as a wonderful development that eliminated most problems with rinderpest, and he described a later vaccine with more stability in higher temperatures as another nail in rinderpest's coffin. Dr. Subbiah worked in a university diagnostic laboratory in southeastern India during the late 1980s, and he was involved in work that identified natural transmission of rinderpest from cattle to goats.

Despite initial success through vaccination programs, FAO information states that the programs were discontinued too soon.

Dr. Cowen said that, when he was in Nigeria from 1975-1979, vaccination campaigns had already reduced the disease's presence to small areas in Western and Eastern Africa. But political will to pay for eradication decreased as the disease disappeared from regions, eventually leading to a resurgence throughout the continent.

From 1975-1983, rinderpest spread through Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, and Nigeria. The pandemic eventually devastated cattle populations of 18 countries, according to the FAO.

In 1994, the FAO launched the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme as a means to coordinate international efforts to eliminate and verify elimination of the disease. The program was intended to lead to a declaration of global rinderpest freedom by 2011, according to the FAO.

The last rinderpest vaccines were used in 2006. Prior to eradication, FAO officials warned that most of the world's cattle and buffalo were completely susceptible to rinderpest and that careful management was needed during that unavoidable period of vulnerability.

Eradication proves ability

Dr. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO, recalled seeing rinderpest's devastating effects on animals during a three-week course from the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service about 25 years ago. Dr. DeHaven was the APHIS administrator prior to working at the AVMA, and the course was intended to aid identification of diseases such as rinderpest, foot and mouth disease, and classical swine fever in case U.S. livestock populations became infected.

"The animals that get it really suffer," Dr. DeHaven said. "So by eliminating the disease, we're not only realizing an economic benefit but also an animal welfare benefit."

Dr. DeHaven said the declarations of rinderpest's eradication would be impossible without the knowledge, expertise, and oversight of veterinarians in many countries. He said the eradication demonstrates the importance of veterinarians and their role in ensuring adequate food supplies, and he cited FAO information that indicates population growth and changing diets could double demand for protein from animals by 2050.

An editorial from Dr. Bernard Vallat, director general of the OIE, praises rinderpest's eradication as a major breakthrough for scientific fields and international collaboration.

"It is, however, above all a success for veterinary services and the entire veterinary profession, especially since the scarcity of resources available to veterinary services in many infected countries constituted a major obstacle to the implementation of effective control strategies," the editorial states.

Dr. Cowen said eradication required tremendous efforts involving testing and clinical monitoring and the participation of local residents to prove that the disease no longer existed. Eradication was particularly difficult in politically unstable countries such as Somalia and Sri Lanka. While he noted that polio could be the next target for eradication, he declined to speculate on what animal disease could be the next target.

"There's a certain amount of pride in veterinary medicine that the first one was a human disease, the second one will be an animal disease, and the third one will be a human disease," Dr. Cowen said. "And hopefully we'll keep ping-ponging our way into better animal health, which always translates into better public health."