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Wednesday, 01 June, 2011

Dreaded "Cattle Plague" Disease Eradicated

Disease led to the establishment of the world’s first veterinary school

Contact:  Jeanne Johnson, AAVMC Communications
202.371.9195 x 144, or 410.825.1323 (cell)



Washington, D.C., June 1, 2011 – Three decades after the global eradication of smallpox, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris last week announced the eradication of rinderpest, a previously dreaded livestock disease that, throughout history, has killed millions of animals in Europe, Asia and Africa, and triggered famines with devastating consequences for the world’s human population.  Rinderpest, a viral disease also known as “cattle plague,” is the second infectious disease to be eradicated from the face of the earth, following the eradication of smallpox in humans in 1979.

According to Dr. Alan Kelly, an expert in rinderpest history and dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, rinderpest is among the most dreaded of animal diseases, and rinderpest epidemics were responsible for some of history’s greatest famines, decimating agricultural and rural economies as far back as the siege of Troy.

In an ancient example of biological warfare, Kelly said, marauding Asian armies used rinderpest-resistant, virus-shedding Grey Steppe cattle to trigger epidemics aimed at starving and destabilizing invaded countries. The disease accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire and the conquest of Christian Europe by Charlemagne.  It followed the armies of Genghis Khan from Asia into Europe and accompanied colonists into Africa where the Great African Pandemic, by killing 90 percent of the cattle from Ethiopia to the Cape of Good Hope, caused death from starvation in 30 percent of Ethiopians and 60 percent of the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania.  Fifty percent of all wild ungulates also died, setting up conditions for Tsetse fly proliferation and the spread of sleeping sickness.  

In Western Europe during the 18th century, it is estimated that rinderpest killed 200 million cattle, provoking social unrest that became a prelude to the French Revolution. In the 19th century, during the colonization of Indonesia and the Philippines by Holland and the United States respectively, rinderpest, introduced from the Asian mainland, destroyed 90 percent of the cattle in both colonies. Despite prompt installation of veterinary services, it took 30 years to eliminate the disease from these island nations.

In response to the plague’s ravages, France founded the world’s first veterinary school in Lyon in 1761, and a disastrous epidemic in Britain in 1865-67 resulted in the establishment of the first national veterinary service. This indirectly led to the creation of the Bureau of Animal Industries, the forerunner of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the United States. The World Organisation of Animal Health (OIE) was formed in 1924 because of the continuing threat of rinderpest and its control was the one of the primary reasons for the creation of FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 1947.

Dr. Walter Plowright, a British veterinary pathologist and 1999 World Food Prize Laureate who died in 2010, was chiefly responsible for the vaccine that made the conquest of rinderpest possible.  Challenged by the vaccine’s volatility, Dr. Jeffrey Mariner and veterinarian scientists at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, in collaboration with Dr. Charles Mebus and other scientists at the USDA’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center, worked on a modification of the Plowright vaccine that did not require refrigeration in the field to maintain immunogenicity. This thermostable, lyophilized vaccine, called Thermovax, retained the minimum required potency for extended periods of time at a temperature of 37 degrees. As such, vaccinators were able to carry the vaccine to remote locations and still be confident that, when administered, the vaccine would confer immunity. The Pan African Rinderpest Campaign (PARC) adopted Thermovax and its application in difficult areas of East Africa, which helped to make the eradication of rinderpest in Africa a realistic goal.    

Successful efforts to contain rinderpest have informed all subsequent approaches to the control of contagious diseases of livestock and poultry.  Early in the 18th century, Dr. Kelly explained, Giovanni Lancisi, physician to Pope Clement XI, challenged medieval methods of containment and insisted “(i)t is better to kill all sick and suspect animals, instead of allowing the disease to spread…” Transgressing laymen were to be hanged and guilty clergy condemned to the galleys. Lancisi’s approach, absent Rome’s brutish punishment, was applied with great success by Thomas Bates, surgeon to King George I, when rinderpest crossed into England from Holland in 1714.  

Today, Lancici’s dictum, of particular relevance in today’s time of great concern about food safety, food security, and bio-terrorism, is augmented by such measures as disease surveillance, vaccine development, quarantine, import restrictions, safe carcass disposal, and outlawing the sale of meat and milk from sick animals, Kelly explained, adding that, “If not eradicated at the time it was, rinderpest had the potential to be particularly contagious in modern times because of global trade and the international movement of animals and animal products.”

“The campaign to conquer rinderpest saved animals’ lives but also helped to change the course of human history,” said Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC). “This is a classic example of how veterinarian scientists protect both animal and human health. It’s important that veterinary medicine be included in many health initiatives because, as rinderpest and other newer diseases continue to demonstrate, there’s a vital connection between human, animal, and environmental health.”

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The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) is a non-profit membership organization working to protect and improve the health and welfare of animals, people and the environment by advancing academic veterinary medicine. Its members include all 33 veterinary medical colleges in the United States and Canada, nine departments of veterinary science, eight departments of comparative medicine, three veterinary medical education institutions, nine international colleges of veterinary medicine, and five affiliate international colleges of veterinary medicine.  On the Web:

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