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Rinderpest: confining animal plagues to history

Only one virus, smallpox, has been eradicated. But it is hoped that soon another virus, and the first one of animals, will be added to the list: the rinderpest virus (RPV).

Rinderpest, or cattle plague, is an infectious viral disease; its high mortality rates of 80-90% have made it the scourge of livestock farmers the world over.

TEM of the rinderpest virus, a Morbillivirus.
Image: Rajnish Kaushik

Europe was hit by plagues of the virus in the periods of 1709-1720, 1742-1760, and 1768-1786. In Britain, attempts were made to regulate the livestock trade on an enormous scale, including unique and eventually successful policies where farmers were compensated for slaughtering infected animals, as has occurred today after outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.

A pandemic that spread across southern and eastern Africa in the late 1880s killed cattle, buffalo, eland, giraffe, wildebeest, kudu and various species of antelope in many regions. As a result, in Kenya the Masai people suffered starvation and their population was severely reduced.

Illustration of rinderpest in the Netherlands around 1750 (click for enlarged version)

In 1890, a contemporary portrait of the hardships detailed: “Never before in the memory of man, or by the voice of tradition, have the cattle died in such numbers; never before has the wild game suffered”.

A campaign to eradicate rinderpest, the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP), was launched formally in 1994 by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) using the Institute for Animal Health (IAH, and institute of BBSRC) to develop surveillance technologies, initiate training and technology transfer, and the provision of advice to policy groups.

A final announcement on rinderpest eradication will be made in 2011 (click for enlarged version).
Image: FAO

IAH scientists introduced serological and diagnostic tests into Africa, the Middle East and Asia and the IAH was designated as the FAO World Reference Laboratory for Rinderpest in 1994 and Morbilliviruses in 2002, respectively.

The last rinderpest-positive sample from the Kenya border with Somalia was identified in 2001 and surveillance continues to provide final confirmation of global eradication, expected in 2010.

Elimination of rinderpest through large scale vaccination and surveillance campaigns will stand as a great success for veterinary science, confining a plague to history but today saving Africa alone at least $1Bn per year.