How rinderpest was eradicated

Rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, was a disease caused by the rinderpest virus. The disease primarily infected cattle and buffalo, but was also found in animals such as zebus, eland, kudu, wildebeest, antelopes, bushpigs, warthogs, giraffes, sheep, and goats.1

Infected animals suffered from symptoms such as fever, wounds in the mouth, diarrhea, discharge from the nose and eyes, and eventually death. Death rates during rinderpest outbreaks were remarkably high, up to 100% in particularly susceptible herds.2

The introduction of rinderpest to Sub-Saharan Africa killed so much cattle that the landscape was permanently changed. For example, it allowed for the growth of vegetation that favoured the spread of the tse-tse fly. This fly transmits African sleeping sickness, a disease that still kills thousands every year and which occurred in major epidemics in the past.

While Rinderpest did not infect humans it severely affected them. Rinderpest outbreaks caused famines responsible for millions of deaths.3

The means by which rinderpest was eradicated

The fight against rinderpest is an example for how case numbers could be driven down even before the invention of a potent vaccine, which was only developed in 1960. This illustrates that while having effective means against a disease was important for eradication, the proper implementation of other measures significantly reduced the disease burden even before.

Before the development of a vaccine, quarantine, improved hygiene, slaughter and inoculation4 were common practices in containing rinderpest. The former two practices were effective thanks to rinderpest’s transmission requiring close contact between infected and susceptible animals. Europe managed to achieve rinderpest elimination this way at the beginning of the 20th century, long before the introduction of the vaccine.5

Slaughter was another means to contain Rinderpest’s spread. It was understandably less popular because all cattle had to be killed if one infected member was identified. Nevertheless, European Russia successfully eliminated rinderpest this way in 1908.

Inoculating cows with inactivated virus samples from infected animals was an idea inspired by the variolation practice against smallpox in humans. Thailand, the Philippines and Iran, for example, managed to eliminate rinderpest before the Second World War using inactivated virus samples from cows.6

In 1960 an English veterinary scientist Walter Plowright developed an inactivated vaccine – a tissue culture rinderpest vaccine, or TCRV – that induced lifelong immunity without major side effects or the risk of further transmission and could be produced at a low cost. His success was based on figuring out how to grow rinderpest virus in a laboratory outside of living organisms, using a method lab-grown cell cultures.7 In 1961, Albert Sabin used the same method to develop an oral polio vaccine.8 Plowright was awarded with the World Food Prize in 1999 for making rinderpest’s “eradication, for the first time in human history, a practical objective”.9

Rinderpest was only ever endemic in Europe, Asia and Africa (with two isolated outbreaks in Brazil in 1920 and Australia in 1923).10

In 1994, the FAO launched the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) with the goal of eradication by 2010.11

Thanks to the program’s global surveillance and vaccination efforts (a ring vaccination strategy similar to that applied to smallpox was used)12, the last known rinderpest outbreak occurred in Kenya in 2001 with the last case being recorded in Mauritania in 2003. Over the next ten years, the GREP continued to search for rinderpest samples. Finding none, rinderpest was declared eradicated by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) on 25 May 2011.13

Unfortunately, no data on rinderpest cases and deaths seem to exist on a global level.14

The world map here illustrates that with the exception of the two isolated outbreaks in Brazil and Australia Rinderpest infections were limited to Europe, Africa and Asia. While Western Europe already eliminated Rinderpest successfully by the end of the 19th century, the last Asian case was recorded in Pakistan in 2000 and the last global case was documented in Kenya in 2003.

In 2014, 23 countries were reported to still hold samples of the rinderpest virus which is why the OIE and FAO aim to destroy most remaining rinderpest virus stocks and store a few remaining samples under international supervision in approved laboratories.15

The eradication of rinderpest from 1945 to 2011 is estimated to have cost the equivalent of 2017-USD 5.5 billion in 201716 but its economic benefits remain unknown. It is worth noting, though, that the 1982-1984 outbreak in most of Africa caused the loss of livestock of the equivalent value of at least 2017-USD 1.02 billion.17