For millennia, rinderpest, a deadly cattle disease, has wreaked havoc on livestock and wildlife populations on three continents, resulting in massive animal death, extensive human famine, and loss of draught animal power in agricultural communities throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Last week, however, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared at a global Rinderpest eradication symposium in Rome that it was confident that Rinderpest had been completely eradicated from the face of the earth. 

cattle-herd-featured.jpgThe celebratory announcement marked only the second time in human history that a virus has been pronounced to be wiped out. The first time occurred about 30 years ago when officials confirmed the eradication of smallpox.

Rinderpest, which means “cattle plague” in German, is thought to have originated in Asia and spread through the trade and transport of cattle. Livestock would become infected with the disease mainly through direct contact or by drinking contaminated water; however research has shown that it was also transmitted by air. Scientists believe that by approximately 3,000 B.C., the disease had reached Egypt. 

The infectious virus, despite its apparent sensitivity to heat, light and desiccation, has been considered by some to be the world’s most devastating disease affecting farm animals. It is estimated that over the course of its lifespan, the virus has killed millions of cattle, bison and yaks.

Belonging to a group of closely related viruses called morbilliviruses, which include human measles, rinderpest is often characterized by fever, oral erosions, diarrhea, lymphoid necrosis and high mortality.

Although humans are not at risk of infection from the disease, the virus’s ability to kill vast numbers of cattle at a rapid rate has led to devastating effects on agriculture including severe famine and economic ruin.

During the period of European colonization in Africa in the 19th century, the disease spread throughout the African continent resulting in utter catastrophe in some areas. Certain areas in Kenya and Ethiopia, in particular, were forced to destroy whole herds of cattle which led to widespread starvation.

Individual countries began eradication efforts in the early 1900s; however joint global efforts were not launched until the 1980s. In 1994, the Global Rinderpest Eradication Program was initiated and supported by FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health as the disease continued to ravage livestock populations worldwide.

cattle-ecoli-vaccine.jpgBy the late 1990s, the worldwide eradication program was successful in significantly reducing the incidence of Rinderpest infections with the use of a vaccine developed by Dr. Walter Plowright, for which he won the World Food Prize in 1999. In addition, diagnostic tests were implemented among ranchers to detect the disease in its early stages.

After a several-decades long crusade, the last confirmed case of rinderpest was diagnosed in 2001 in Kenya. Vaccinations of livestock continued until 2006 and surveillance teams continued their observations until 2009 at which time scientists no longer found evidence of the disease present in animals. 

On Thursday Oct. 14, FAO announced the remarkable achievement that its worldwide campaign to eradicate Rinderpest would cease all field operations. The agency said that “[a]s of mid 2010, FAO is confident that the rinderpest virus has been eliminated from Europe, Asia, Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, and Africa,” which were the locations in which the virus had been last reported.

“I think that the biggest achievement in veterinary history has been the eradication of rinderpest globally,” said Dr. John Anderson, Head of the FAO’s Rinderpest World Reference Laboratory at the Institute for Animal Health until his retirement in 2008.

Although FAO expressed its certainty that the disease has been wiped out, a formal declaration will not be released until sometime in mid-2011 after a final review of rinderpest field reports. 

A question still remains whether samples of the rinderpest virus in laboratories around the world should be maintained. Scientists argue that it is too soon to destroy all stocks of the disease. Currently stocks of the virus are will kept in highly specialized and secure laboratories until further review is performed.