The bovine equivalent of measles, rinderpest is described in ancient Chinese writings and in documents from the Roman Empire. It hobbled Charlemagne when he moved herds to support his armies in the 8th century. When it entered Ethiopia in 1889, it caused starvation that killed one-third of the country’s human population, even though the microbe does not infect people.
Even in communities that do not depend on herding for their livelihood, rinderpest could be lethal because it killed draft animals and disrupted agriculture.
“This is quite a momentous occasion for humanity,” said Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which next month at its headquarters in Rome will officially declare the disease eradicated.
William R. White, a rinderpest expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said: “The suffering that this disease has caused through the millennia is incredible. This is probably the greatest achievement in veterinary medicine.”
Rinderpest, which means “cattle plague” in German, is highly contagious and has a fatality rate of about 80 percent. It is the only animal disease to have been eradicated; smallpox occurs only in human beings.
Clean bill of health
The World Organization for Animal Health, at its annual meeting in Paris on Wednesday, accepted documentation from the last 14 countries that they were now free of rinderpest. The organization, which goes by its French acronym, OIE, was started in 1924 in response to a rinderpest importation in Europe.
The most recent recorded outbreak occurred in Kenya in 2001. Much of the past decade has been spent looking for new cases, in domesticated animals and in the wild, wandering herds of ungulates, or hoofed animals, in East Africa. The last place of especially intense surveillance was Somalia, where the final outbreak of smallpox occurred in 1977.
“There are a huge number of unsung heroes in lots of countries that made this possible,” said Michael Baron, a rinderpest virologist at the Institute for Animal Health in Surrey, England. “In most places, they were ordinary veterinary workers who were doing the vaccination, the surveillance, the teaching.”
Ridding the world of other infectious diseases, however, has proved even more difficult.
Smallpox eradication took 11 years of intensive effort and was aided by a hard-to-miss rash that made finding cases easy. The effort to eradicate polio, launched in 1988, has proved far more arduous. It is now 11 years past its original deadline, with the virus — which in most cases causes no obvious symptoms — still circulating in eight countries. An effort to eradicate malaria failed spectacularly in the 1950s.