The scientific community has earned a well-deserved pat on the back. For only the second time in history, a disease has been completely eradicated. Rinderpest, a deadly malady that would strike cattle, yaks, water buffalo, and other similar animals, is no more according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Humans could not catch rinderpest, but were nevertheless still profoundly affected by it. With a mortality rate of approximately 80 percent, this disease would kill animals that provided meat and milk to millions of people as well as help plow and handle other farming chores.
Widespread throughout Europe and Asia for millennia — there is evidence of it in Egypt 5,000 years ago — rinderpest made its way into sub-Saharan Africa in the late 19th Century. Introduced to that region through cattle imported from India, the disease destroyed approximately 90 percent of the livestock. The devastation brought about a famine that was responsible for the death of nearly one-third of the total human population of Ethiopia. That makes the current AIDS epidemic look small by comparison.
Rinderpest never made it to North America, Australia, or New Zealand. Its only incidence in South America was a small outbreak in Brazil in the 1920s. The cattle transported by ship would become ill or die during the journey, so the remainder of the herd was either slaughtered or quarantined upon arrival.
For hundreds of years, veterinary disease specialists and the owners of herds of cattle tried to fend off the disease with little success. They would separate the sick animals into quarantine or kill them off to prevent spreading the illness. They also created immunizations with heated or chemically altered forms of the virus in a futile attempt to inoculate the healthy members of the herd. It was not until the 1950s, when a British veterinary pathologist named Walter Plowright produced a true vaccine for rinderpest. He was able to do that because of breakthroughs in vaccine development that began with treating polio. (No need to go into the problems associated with the polio vaccine at this time.)
Rinderpest is actually related to the human measles and canine distemper diseases. Its name is derived from the German word for cattle plague. The last known case of rinderpest was in Kenya in 2001. Scientists on the world health scene need to wait several years before declaring a disease eradicated because numerous illnesses have similar symptoms. Blood tests and field observation must be performed to ensure there are truly no longer any existing cases.
It took three years, between 1977 and 1980, for researchers to declare smallpox — the only other disease ever eliminated — gone from the face of the earth (except for special laboratories and secret military research facilities). That timeline was shorter because people with smallpox visit doctors and report their symptoms much more dependably than animal owners, who sometimes just let the sick animals in their herd die off.
As with smallpox, the question now is how much of the rinderpest virus do we save. One faction, virologists, argue that it’s worth keeping frozen samples in laboratories throughout the world for research purposes. On the other side of the debate are public health experts, who would like to see the remaining samples destroyed. They worry that these samples could be stolen for use in biological warfare or simply exposed in a random lab accident. In fact, there are reportedly only two acknowledged residual stores of smallpox left in the world, in labs in the United States at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and in Moscow at the Research Institute for Viral Preparations — two of the most highly regarded and secure facilities in the world.
Surely one of the greatest achievements in the history of veterinary medicine, the eradication of rinderpest has a widespread impact for humans as well. Of course, on a more prosaic level, there is the matter of healthy animals providing food and farming assistance to millions of people throughout the world, but especially in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. Those people, who literally depend on these animals for life and sustenance, will be safe from a major risk that threatened their survival.
But it also gives medical researchers a rare victory to crow about. As cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, etc. continue to rage unchecked by medical advancement, the eradication of rinderpest presents a unique opportunity to congratulate medical science without reservation…at least on behalf of the bovine community.