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It’s official! FAO declares rinderpest vanquished

Africa Everyday

Cow bell from Kenya, on loan from Gary K Clarke, Cowabunga Safaris (photo by Topeka & Shawness County Public Library on Flickr).

This week, as the New York Times reports below, the United Nations officially declared that, for only the second time in history, a disease has been wiped off the face of the earth. The disease is rinderpest.

‘The name means “cattle plague” in German, and it is a relative of the measles virus that infects cloven-hoofed beasts, including cattle, buffaloes, large antelopes and deer, pigs and warthogs, even giraffes and wildebeests. The most virulent strains killed 95 percent of the herds they attacked.

‘But rinderpest is hardly irrelevant to humans. It has been blamed for speeding the fall of the Roman Empire, aiding the conquests of Genghis Khan and hindering those of Charlemagne, opening the way for the French and Russian Revolutions, and subjugating East Africa to colonization.

‘Any society dependent on cattle—or relatives like African zebu, Asian water buffaloes or Himalayan yaks—was vulnerable.

‘As meat and milk, cattle were and are both food and income to peasant farmers, as well as the source of calves to sell and manure for fields. Until recently, they were the tractors that dragged plows and the trucks that hauled crops to market. When herds die, their owners starve.

‘The long but little-known campaign to conquer rinderpest is a tribute to the skill and bravery of “big animal” veterinarians, who fought the disease in remote and sometimes war-torn areas—across arid stretches of Africa bigger than Europe, in the Arabian desert and on the Mongolian steppes. . . .

The eradication of rinderpest shows what can be done when field commanders combine scientific advances and new tactics. . . .

‘Africa was spared until 1887, when the Italian Army, struggling to conquer Abyssinia, imported Indian cattle for food and draft power.

‘From the port of Massawa in present-day Eritrea, the virus exploded so fast that it reached South Africa within a decade (and is considered one of the factors that impoverished Boer farmers as war with the English approached). It doomed East Africa’s wandering herders, subsisting on milk mixed with cow blood. Historians believe a third of them or more starved to death. . . .

‘In 1761, the first school of veterinary medicine was founded in Lyon, France, specifically to fight rinderpest.

‘In 1924, a new and devastating European outbreak was the impetus for creating the World Organization for Animal Health, the veterinary equivalent of the World Health Organization. . . .

‘The intractable problem was Africa. The disease was in 32 countries there, and many had pastoralist tribes like the Fulani, Masai, Dinka and Afar, who lived on the borderless fringes and drove cattle up to 50 miles a day, having virtually no contact with governments and getting no veterinary bulletins. . . .

‘Just reaching them was hard. Land Rovers broke down, gasoline and cash ran short. Vaccine was packaged with salt so it could be dissolved in saline, but in remote areas salt was so valuable that it would be stolen. . . .

‘A crucial advance was a new vaccine that survived a month without refrigeration. That let herders who could be recruited do their own vaccinating. An education campaign using comic books, flip charts and lecturers who spoke local languages was begun. . . .

‘Even though the last known case was in 2001, officials waited 10 years to declare success, since surveillance is harder with animal diseases. Even in Somalia, where the last smallpox case was found, a dying child would be rushed to a hospital. A dying cow would just be left behind.

‘The whole campaign, from 1945 to the present, cost about $5 billion, the United Nations has estimated.

‘“At first I thought, that’s quite a lot,” Dr. Roeder said. “Then I thought, that last royal wedding cost $8 billion. This was cheap.”’

* * *

Read the whole article at the New York Times: Rinderpest, scourge of cattle, is vanquished, 27 June 2011.

Read about the role of ILRI scientist Jeffrey Mariner in developing the improved vaccine, which did not require refrigeration:
ILRI News Blog: Deadly rinderpest virus today declared eradicated from the earth–’greatest achievement in veterinary medicine, 28 June 2011.

ILRI Clippings Blog: Beating plague: Rinderpest is the second disease to be eradicated from the earth, 23 May 2011.

The Ethiopian government, along with a team from FIC and the Tufts School of Medicine, in July 2011 celebrated the official eradication of the rinderpest virus from the country, once a hotspot for the disease. Jeffrey Mariner, than a research associate at Tufts, was integral in finding the vaccine, which he began working on nearly two decades ago.Watch the film, Beating Plague, on Earth Reporters, a section of the website of The Open University.

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