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:
- Discharge from the nose and eyes
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 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. https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/jir327
What is rinderpest?: OIE – World Organisation for Animal Health. (2016). Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.oie.int/en/disease/rinderpest/
Saliki, J., DVM, PhD, DACVM. (2020, April). Rinderpest – Generalized Conditions. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.merckvetmanual.com/generalized-conditions/rinderpest/rinderpest
de Vries, R. D., Duprex, W. P., & de Swart, R. L. (2015). Morbillivirus infections: an introduction. Viruses, 7(2), 699–706. https://doi.org/10.3390/v7020699
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. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2018.00182
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. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2012.0139
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