Sheep in a field with barns in the background.

Rinderpest’s Reign of Terror

Katie LobertiAnimal Health, Livestock diseases, Policy, Wildlife

A disease so fearsome it was given the name “cattle plague”, rinderpest left behind trails of devastation in the wake of outbreaks. The 1887-1892 Great Ethiopian Famine occurred when almost all of the cattle, buffaloes, sheep, goats and wildlife species died from this disease (Morens, D. M., et al., 2011). In the 19th century, rinderpest killed 20 percent of all cattle in Africa. Throughout its reign of terror, rinderpest severely impacted many people and even entire countries. Large-scale livestock and wildlife die-offs slowed economic development, which increased poverty and malnutrition (Morens, D. M., et al., 2011).

The highly infectious rinderpest was found on several continents, and most commonly recorded in European, African and Asian countries. Occurrences of this disease were considered epizootic, a term that applies to animal diseases similar to an epidemic disease in human populations. The rinderpest epizootic events could be compared to human epidemics such as the Spanish Flu.

After an outbreak of rinderpest from cattle imported to Belgium during 1924, the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), later named the World Organization for Animal Health was formed. The OIE was established to gain better control over infectious animal diseases in the world.

“Cattle plague” is a translation of the German word rinderpest, which seemed appropriate because infected animals would often look similar to the plague in humans. Rinderpest had clinical signs that were gruesome and often jarring, especially to see in several cattle at once. After an incubation period of 3-15 days, necrotic lesions (localized death of living tissue) would appear all over an animals’ gums and tongues. Animals would have fevers, be off feed, have pus discharge from their eyes and noses, and cracked, dry muzzles from dehydration (Saliki, 2020). One of the last symptoms was bloody diarrhea and the animal would die soon afterward.

Signs of rinderpest included:

  • Fever
  • Discharge from the nose and eyes
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration

Most cases of rinderpest quickly resulted in death; a single case on a farm would result in the imminent loss of most, if not all, of the animals.

Rinderpest Specifics

Rinderpest is a morbillivirus in the same genus as canine distemper and measles (Saliki, 2020). It affects cloven-footed animals such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, pigs and wild ruminants. Morbilliviruses are extremely contagious, and commonly spread through the respiratory route, remaining airborne for long periods of time (de Vries, R. D., et al., 2015). If inhaled, these viruses can cause infection and are often associated with high morbidity and mortality rates. Rinderpest had staggering mortality rates of up to 90 percent (Mourant, J. R., et al., 2018). In areas where the disease was not native to the area, the cases seen were often severe and had high mortality rates. However, in areas where the virus was endemic (native to an area), cases were often recorded as mild with significantly fewer deaths (Saliki, 2020). This was suspected to be because of a natural immunity cattle had built up over time in areas where rinderpest was endemic.

The Eradication of Rinderpest

In 2011, rinderpest joined smallpox as one of the world’s few completely eradicated diseases. While the eradication of an animal disease may be viewed as a small victory compared to smallpox, animal diseases should not be considered less important than human diseases. Most of the world’s food comes from agriculture, so everyone needs healthy animals in order to survive. Before giving priority to human diseases, it’s important to realize that without aggressive action against both human and animal diseases together, today’s societies would largely fail to function.

Over and over, rinderpest had re-emerged when biosecurity measures were disregarded. In Africa during the 1960s, the disease was quelled through vaccination efforts. However, it made a brutal resurgence again in the 1980s when biosecurity practices were undermined in favor of emphasizing vaccination programs that were poorly monitored (Roeder, P., et al., 2013). The disease was able to spread through wild populations such as gazelles, giraffes and wildebeests, but early vaccination programs assumed the vaccination of cattle would be sufficient to stop the threat. Midway through the JP 15 program (a program organized by the Inter-African Bureau of Epizootic Diseases in 1960), farmers had become slack with vaccinating calves on their farms, and rinderpest rebounded. After programs focusing only on vaccination failed, new programs began that placed equal emphasis on vaccination as well as on prevention. These programs, such as the Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign (PARC), and the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP), used more intensive surveillance of vaccination programs than their predecessors to work towards eradication.

Is Eradication Really the End?

The global celebration of rinderpest’s eradication does not mean the virus no longer exists. The rinderpest virus exists today, securely stored in laboratories. The virus is being kept in the event the disease makes a resurgence and a vaccine needs to be made.

Rinderpest is an example of how important it is to practice biosecurity to prevent a disease outbreak. The battle against rinderpest was grueling and hard-fought. Many animals and people lost their lives to an epizootic that ruthlessly tore through communities. Now there are more helpful resources for animal health protection, such as research and guides created by organizations like the OIE. In addition, several countries are OIE members and communicate with one another on the status of animal diseases within their borders. OIE keeps track of this information on official status maps of animal diseases worldwide.


Morens, D. M., Holmes, E. C., Davis, A. S., & Taubenberger, J. K. (2011). Global rinderpest eradication: lessons learned and why humans should celebrate too. The Journal of infectious diseases, 204(4), 502–505.

What is rinderpest?: OIE – World Organisation for Animal Health. (2016). Retrieved July 21, 2020, from

Saliki, J., DVM, PhD, DACVM. (2020, April). Rinderpest – Generalized Conditions. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from

de Vries, R. D., Duprex, W. P., & de Swart, R. L. (2015). Morbillivirus infections: an introduction. Viruses, 7(2), 699–706.

Mourant, J. R., Fenimore, P. W., Manore, C. A., & McMahon, B. H. (2018). Decision Support for Mitigation of Livestock Disease: Rinderpest as a Case Study. Frontiers in veterinary science, 5, 182.

Roeder, P., Mariner, J., & Kock, R. (2013). Rinderpest: the veterinary perspective on eradication. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 368(1623), 20120139.

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About the Author

Katie Loberti

Katie Loberti was an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont pursuing a bachelor's degree in animal science. In the past, she worked as a park naturalist at Burlingame State Park in Rhode Island, which allowed her to grow and share her knowledge and passion for wildlife in New England with others. She also volunteered at Biomes Marine Biology Center in Rhode Island which helped her discover her love for aquatic life. At the University of Vermont, Katie was an active member of the women's rugby club. In the future, Katie hopes to pursue veterinary medicine or do work with animal conservation and education.

About the Editor

Joanna Cummings

Joanna Cummings received a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture from The Pennsylvania State University (PSU), with a specialization in vegetable crop and greenhouse production. At PSU, she was a research technician on no-tillage vegetable crop experiments, and a greenhouse assistant in the All-American Selections Research Gardens. Her career in the agriculture industry includes field research, work with dairy and vegetable farms, and as a greenhouse manager, estate gardener, landscaping and market garden entrepreneur. She transitioned to the science communication field after receiving a master of science degree in environmental communications from Antioch University New England. At Antioch, Joanna was a field botany laboratory teaching assistant, manager of the herbarium, and editor of the department's student newsletter, Notes and Niches. She currently works with Research Professor Julie M. Smith as a communications professional in the University of Vermont Animal and Veterinary Sciences Department. She is the webmaster for the Healthy Farms Healthy Agriculture website.

About the Editor

Dr. Julie Smith

Dr. Julie Smith is a research professor at the University of Vermont. Julie received her B.S. in biological sciences, D.V.M., and Ph.D. in animal nutrition at Cornell University. Since 2002, she has applied her veterinary background to programs in the areas of herd health, calf and heifer management, and agricultural emergency management. She has taught courses in animal welfare, calf biology and management, and ABCs of biosecurity to undergraduates, mostly in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences. As a veterinarian and spouse of a dairy farmer, Julie is well aware of the animal health and well-being concerns of dairy animals. Julie has conducted trainings for Extension educators, livestock producers, and community members on the risks posed by a range of animal diseases, whether they already exist in the United States, exist outside of the United States, or pose a risk to both animal and human health. In all cases, she emphasizes the importance of awareness and prevention. In addition, she has led a number of projects on biosecurity and emergency disease preparedness.