How rinderpest was eradicated

Rinderpest was a disease that primarily infected cattle and buffalo. Thanks to a decades-long international campaign, it was the first animal disease to be eradicated.

Rinderpest – also known as cattle plague – was a disease caused by the rinderpest virus which primarily infected cattle and buffalo.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

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

The virus spread via droplets, so that animals got infected by inhaling sick animals' breath, secretions or excretions. Rinderpest was a so-called dead-end disease for wild herds as their low population density inhibited the disease spread. Together with the development of a potent vaccine in 1960, the dead-end in wild herds played an important role in achieving the disease eradication in 2011. It is the first — and until today the only — animal disease to be eradicated.4 5

The means by which rinderpest was eradicated

The fight against rinderpest was successul in driving down case numbers even before the invention of a potent vaccine 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 inoculation were common practices in containing rinderpest.6 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.7

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 largely 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 largely using inactivated virus samples from cows.8

In 1960 the 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 which could be produced at a low cost. His success was based on figuring out how to grow the rinderpest virus in a laboratory outside of living organisms.9 In 1961, Albert Sabin used the same method to develop an oral polio vaccine.10 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".11

As the map shows, Rinderpest was only ever endemic in Europe, Asia and Africa – in addition to this there were two isolated outbreaks in Brazil in 1920 and Australia in 1923.12

Click to open interactive version

In 1994, the FAO launched the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) with the goal of eradication by 2010.13 Thanks to the program's global surveillance and vaccination efforts (a ring vaccination strategy similar to that applied to smallpox was used)14, 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 2011.15

Unfortunately, no data on rinderpest cases and deaths seem to exist on a global level.16

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.12

The eradication of rinderpest from 1945 to 2011 is estimated to have cost the equivalent of 2017-USD 5.5 billion17 but to our knowledge there is no assessment of the economic benefits of the eradication. 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.18


  1. The disease was also found in animals such as zebus, eland, kudu, wildebeest, antelopes, bushpigs, warthogs, giraffes, sheep, and goats. The Rinderpest virus is a member of the Morbillivirus family. FAO. (2015). Transmission of Rinderpest. FAO's Animal Production and Health Division. Retrieved 16 February 2018, from

  2. OIE - World Organisation for Animal Health. (2018). General Disease Information Sheets - Rinderpest. World Organization for Animal Health. Retrieved 8 February 2018, from

  3. For example, when Rinderpest was introduced to Ethiopia in 1880, more than 90% of its cattle population died. Farmers depended on cattle for their meat consumption but also for plowing and fertilizing their fields. On top of that, the outbreak coincided with a drought, so Pankhurst (1968) estimates that one third of the Ethiopian human population died between 1888 and 1891.

  4. OIE – World Organisation for Animal Health announcement. Retrieved 25 May 2011 from

  5. Pankhurst, R. (1968). Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935. Addis Abeba: Haile Selassie I University Press.

  6. Inoculation refers to the practice of inserting viral matter of an infected animal into a healthy animal to effect a milder infection and subsequently immunity. This practice was a commonly practiced measure for smallpox protection before the invention of a potent vaccine.

  7. Pg. 108 of Barrett, T., Pastoret, P., & Taylor, W. (2005). Rinderpest and peste des petits ruminants: Virus Plagues of Large and Small Ruminants. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science. Partially available on ebook central or google books.

    A renewed outbreak in Belgium in 1920 inspired the founding of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE, Office International des Epizooties) four years later in Paris on 25 January 1924, with 28 founding member countries.

    OIE - World Organisation for Animal Health. About us: History. Retrieved 16 February 2018, from

  8. More information can be found in Barrett, T., Pastoret, P., & Taylor, W. (2005). Rinderpest and peste des petits ruminants: Virus Plagues of Large and Small Ruminants. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science. Partially available on ebook central or google books.

  9. Tissue culture attenuation: the virus was grown in cattle's kidney cells, which can replicate in a laboratory. This method allows the controlled replication of virus over and over. The virus adapts to the cells over time, making it less dangerous to living cattle. From the 70th passage onwards, so the 70th time it was added to new cells, the virus was no longer harmful to cattle. The resulting virus would then be isolated from the kidney cells, dried for storage and used as for vaccination.

  10. Mariner, J., House, J., Mebus, C., Sollod, A., Chibeu, D., & Jones, B. et al. (2012). Rinderpest Eradication: Appropriate Technology and Social Innovations. Science, 337(6100), 1309-1312. The abstract can be found online on the Science Magazine's website.

  11. The World Food Prize (2018) 1999: Plowright. Retrieved 7 July 2018, from

  12. Hamilton, K., Visser, D., Evans, B., & Vallat, B. (2015). Identifying and Reducing Remaining Stocks of Rinderpest Virus. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 21(12), 2117-2121. Available online on the CDC website.

  13. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme Progress report on rinderpest eradication: Success stories and actions leading to the June 2011 Global Declaration. Retrieved 16 February 2018, from

  14. Roeder, P., Mariner, J., & Kock, R. (2013). Rinderpest: the veterinary perspective on eradication. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 368(1623), 20120139-20120139. Freely available online here.

  15. OIE - World Organisation for Animal Health. No more deaths from rinderpest. Retrieved 25 May 2011, from

  16. This is partly because animal diseases were not as closely documented as human diseases but also because making rinderpest data available publicly could have endangered countries' trade prospects in cattle and meat.

    Pg. 105 of Barrett, T., Pastoret, P., & Taylor, W. (2005). Rinderpest and peste des petits ruminants: Virus Plagues of Large and Small Ruminants. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science. Partially available on ebook central or google books.

    However, the World Organisation for Animal Health's Youtube channel features a video of Rinderpest outbreaks from 376 until 2011.

  17. Youde (2013) reports the cost to be $5 billion. Assuming that the estimate stems from 2011, the year of eradication, the conversion to 2017 US-$ was conducted using the GDP deflator on the website 'measuring worth'.

    Youde, J. (2013). Cattle scourge no more: The eradication of rinderpest and its lessons for global health campaigns. Politics and the Life Sciences, 32(1), 43-57. Publicly available online here.

  18. The FAO (197) reports the loss to be 'at least $500 million'. We used the year 1984 as a base year and calculated the 2017 equivalent using the GDP deflator on the website 'measuring worth'.

    FAO. (1997). East African rinderpest epidemic contained, but FAO urges countries on in the fight to eradicate the cattle plague from the world by 2010. Retrieved from FAO website.

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    author = {Sophie Ochmann and Hannah Behrens},
    title = {How rinderpest was eradicated},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2018},
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