Rinderpest virus infects cattle, buffalo and several species of antelope among other animals: it is a member of the genus Morbillivirus, family Paramyxoviridae, and is related to measles and mumps viruses in humans, distemper virus in dogs, and a variety of relatively newly-described viruses in marine mammals. It also almost certainly gave rise to measles virus sometime around the 11th-12th centuries CE, as an originally zoonotic infection – sourced in domestic animals – took root in humans and began to be passed around (see here).
Wikipedia describes rinderpest virus as
“…an infectious viral disease of cattle, domestic buffalo, and some species of wildlife. The disease was characterized by fever, oral erosions, diarrhea, lymphoid necrosis, and high mortality.”
“The term Rinderpest is taken from German, and means cattle-plague.”
“Cattle plagues” have occurred throughout recorded history, often associated with the large-scale movement of animals accompanying military campaigns. Europe was badly hit in the 1700s, with three epizootics in 1709–1720, 1742–1760, and 1768–1786, and a major British outbreak in 1865/66.
Of particular interest in South African folklore, an outbreak in the 1890s killed up to 90 percent of all cattle in southern and north-west Africa, and resulted in the deaths of many thousands of people who depended on them. It was devastating enough that people still remember it as a legendary time of hardship. Sir Arnold Theiler was instrumental in developing a vaccine that curbed the epidemic – by simultaneously injecting animals with blood from an infected animal and antiserum from a recovered animal. This protected animals for long enough to allow their immune systems to respond to the virus, but was rather risky, even though it was used for several decades.
In the 1920s J. T. Edwards in what is now the Indian Veterinary Research Institute serially passaged the virus in goats: after 600 passages it no longer caused disease, but elicited lifelong immunity. However, it could still cause disease in immunosuppressed cattle.
In 1924 the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) was formed, largely in response to rinderpest. This took on coordination of eradication efforts, which until then had been largely done on an individual country basis by means of vaccination.
This was followed by the Inter-African Bureau of Epizootic Diseases in 1950, with the aim of eliminating rinderpest from Africa. In 1962, Walter Plowright and R.D. Ferris used tissue culture to develop a live-attenuated vaccine grown in calf kidney cells. Virus that had been passaged 90 times conferred immunity without disease even in immunosuppressed cattle, was stable, and did not spread between animals. This vaccine was the one that allowed the prospect of eradicating the virus, and earned Plowright a World Food Prize in 1999.
Mass vaccination campaigns following outbreaks had, by 1972, eliminated rinderpest in all of Asia except for Lebanon and India. In the 1980s, a Sudan outbreak spread throughout Africa, killing millions of cattle, as well as much wildlife. The response was the initiation of the Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign in 1987, which made use of mass vaccination and surveillance to combat the disease. By the 1990s, all regions of Africa except for Sudan and Somalia were declared rinderpest-free.
By 1996, the complete nucleotide sequence of the virulent Kabete “O” strain of rinderpest had been obtained by Michael Baron and co-workers. This could now be compared to that of the vaccine strain derived from it by Plowright and Ferris in 1962, that had been sequenced earlier, Despite the very different pathogenivities of the two viruses, there were only 87 base changes between them. It was interesting that the Kabete strain – isolated in Kenya in 1910 – had been passaged by animal-to-animal transfer since then, and only 10 times since the derivation of the vaccine strain from it. This provides a rare resource for determination of the determinants of pathogenicity.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has a Division of Animal Production and Health: their web site details a campaign known as the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP), which has been going since 1994. This had succeeded in reducing outbreaks to being small and infrequent by the late 1990s. The last confirmed case of rinderpest was reported in Kenya in 2001. Final vaccinations were given in 2006; the last surveillance operations in 2009 failed to find any evidence of the disease.
By 14th October 2010, the BBC News site had this to say:
“The eradication of the virus has been described as the biggest achievement in veterinary history and one which will save the lives and livelihoods of millions of the poorest people in the world….”
If confirmed, rinderpest would become only the second viral disease – after smallpox – to have been eliminated by humans.”
A news item from the FAO site dated 25 May 2011, declared that:
“The national Delegates of Members of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) declared today that rinderpest, one of the deadliest diseases of cattle and of several other animal species, is now eradicated from the surface of the earth.
At the organisation’s 79th annual General Session in Paris, France the national Delegates of OIE Members unanimously adopted Resolution 18/2011 which officially recognized, following thorough control by the OIE with the support of FAO, that all 198 countries and territories with rinderpest-susceptible animals in the world are free of the disease”.
When commenting on the significance of the achievement, John Anderson, the head of the FAO, described GREP’s announcement that rinderpest had been eradicated as:
“The biggest achievement of veterinary history“.
Like the smallpox eradication, even though much of the campaign happened in the era of modern virology, it was classical virological and disease control measures that were responsible for the success of the operation – with some assistance from molecular diagnostics towards the end.
This is only the second viral disease, ever, to have been eliminated. And how was this possible? Unlike smallpox, which has only humans as a natural and reservoir host (although it almost certainly also got into us from animals), rinderpest attacked a wider range of hosts. However, it seemed mainly to have a reservoir in domesticated cattle, and it did not have an arthropod vector; moreover, the vaccine was cheap and effective.
This is momentous news: we may well have succeeded in ridding the planet of what has been a very significant disease of livestock and of wild animals, which has caused untold agricultural loss throughout recorded history, and which has resulted in enormous human hardship as well.
We have also made a natural species go extinct – but it won’t be missed. Like smallpox, it was completely sequenced some time ago, so we could theoretically recreate it if we ever needed to.