Rinderpest officially eradicated -- and why it matters


It’s official. The “cattle plague” known as rinderpest has been eradicated, the only other disease besides smallpox to achieve the gone-for-good status.

Though the disease is obscure to Americans, the measles relative has been responsible for mass cattle deaths, and thus mass human starvations, many times in history, including famines beginning in the late 1800s in sub-Saharan Africa.

So the announcement Tuesday in Rome, by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declaring the cattle scourge gone, is a big deal for both cows and humans. It follows an equivalent announcement by the World Organization for Animal Health in May.


The credit goes to many, including British veterinarian Dr. Walter Plowright, the inventor of the rinderpest vaccine in the 1950s, and the teams of veterinarians who tracked cattle herds in remote areas to vaccinate cows.

Rinderpest can infect cattle, buffalo and yaks, as well as swine, giraffes and kudus. The disease is caused by a morbillivirus, related to measles in humans and distemper in dogs. A FAQ from the Food and Agriculture Organization explains:

“Affected animals have a high fever, depression, nasal/ocular discharges, erosions in the mouth and the digestive tract, along with diarrhea. The animals rapidly become dehydrated and emaciated, dying one week or so after showing signs of the disease.”

The last known outbreak was recorded among wild buffalo in 2001 in Kenya.

But -- much like smallpox -- the virus isn’t totally wiped from the planet, according to an online Q&A with Juan Lubroth, the chief of animal health services of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Still, the virus is present in many laboratories and research facilities or veterinary schools around the world. So we have to be sure that this virus, or these tissues, are kept securely or even destroyed to be sure that it doesn’t escape. This is one of the key responsibilities facing countries in the post-eradication phase.”


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