The eradication of one of the most destructive diseases in the history of mankind (Rinderpest)

Rinderpest (which translates to cattle plague), is thought to have origins rooted in ancient human history.  Some believe it was one of the ten plagues supposed to have been visited upon biblical Egypt, and for all of recorded history the disease caused by the Rinderpest virus (RPV) has been associated worldwide with war, famine, and desolation.  RPV shares an interesting historical connection to smallpox, though today we know that the virus is genetically more closely related to measles; following smallpox, RPV was the second of the only two viruses to ever be successfully eradicated from the face of the earth by coordinated global intervention.

A photo of the Rinderpest Virus (RPV). Copyright Dr. Rajnish Kaushik.

RPV can affect several species of ungulates including cattle, buffalo, antelope, and deer.  The primary symptom of the disease is fever; this is mentioned in even the earliest of descriptions.  However, many other symptoms could often result including loss of appetite, abnormal excretions, diarrhea, and the formation of lesions around the oral, nasal, or genital areas.  The naturally occurring form of the disease was extremely virulent; nearly all naïve animals died within two weeks of the onset of symptoms.  This meant that the slow spread of the disease across the globe was accompanied by countless intense epizootic events which are likely not fully documented, especially in ancient times.  In places where the disease persisted for long periods such as India, however, it may have existed in more enzootic forms.  It is theorized to have originated somewhere in greater Asia, and was frequently referred to in Europe as ‘steppe murrain’ since it was often spread by the partially resistant gray steppe cattle which were brought in from across the Caspian Basin by traders or invading armies.

The disease was likely recognized and referenced by extremely early authors such as Aristotle and Latin writer Severus Sanctus Endeleichus, although the earliest scientific descriptions are widely acknowledged to have been put to paper by Bernardino Ramazzini at the start of the eighteenth century.  It was during this period that the disease was first understood to be spread via fine (and at the time, unobservable) particles, or contagions.  Many early attempts at inoculation or vaccination were made, although no methods were yet proven successful.  Giovanni Maria Lancisi, the personal physician to several popes, was the first to preside over a successful intervention against an epizootic outbreak of the disease.  He encouraged greater sanitary precautions as well as the restriction of cattle driving.  However, his most effective recommendation by far was to slaughter all infected animals; this extreme measure was heavily controversial but was enforced by papal edict and ultimately was acknowledged as the first successful method by which to control an ongoing outbreak.  But the problems caused by RPV continued to plague areas which were not capable of a centralized mandate, and in 1761 or 1762 the world’s first veterinary school was formed in Lyons, France in order to study and ultimately combat the ravages of the disease.

The rapid transport capabilities provided by the onset of the industrial revolution meant that RPV was suddenly free to spread at extreme rates, and to regions it had never before reached.  The nineteenth century was therefore beset by new epizootic outbreaks of unprecedented severity.  The importance of veterinary clinics was further recognized during this period, and the establishment and funding of such departments was a priority for many nations.  The twentieth century was a time of incredible strides in scientific study and research, and the study of RPV was no exception.  In the 1920s, J. T. Edwards was the first to successfully inoculate animals with an attenuated form of RPV, providing lifelong immunity to the disease.  Many further developments over the following decades meant that RPV became much better understood, and the vaccine was made more effective.

Coordinated action by international organizations and world governments over the latter part of the twentieth century led to the global decline of the virus.  These efforts included vaccinations as well as preventative measures in regions threatened by the resurgence of RPV.  Though some setbacks occurred in places across the African and Asian continents and the disease was able to temporarily regain a foothold, the last recorded case of the disease occurred in Kenya in 2001.  In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced that it was confident the disease had been successfully eradicated.  On the 28th of June, 2011 the FAO in conjunction with its international partners made the official announcement that RPV was a disease of the past.  Today, the virus exists only in quarantine in certain government facilities.  This successful eradication of a worldwide disease through scientific research and treatment is a monumental achievement that stands second only to the elimination of the human-afflicting smallpox virus.  Both of these examples should encourage the scientific community that coordinated global intervention against diseases is indeed possible, and inspire the next generation of researchers to strive ever further in their efforts to improve the worldwide quality of life.


Sources referenced:

Rinderpest and Peste des Petits Ruminants: Virus Plagues of Large and Small Ruminants.

by William P. Taylor


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