Rinderpest, German for cattle plague, has finally met its match and does not exist anymore. It is the first animal disease to be eradicated and only the second disease ever, after smallpox in 1980. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared Tuesday that the world was rid of Rinderpest.
Peter Cowen, an associate professor of epidemiology and public health at North Carolina State University said, “This is of tremendous benefit to people and is also a relief for a lot of animal suffering. The eradication of Rinderpest in the animal health world is every bit as courageous an effort and as creative an effort as was the eradication of smallpox.”
Rinderpest affected only cloven-hoofed beasts, cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats and yaks. For animals, the highly contagious cattle plague meant tremendous suffering, as the virus took over their bodies and caused explosive bloody diarrhea that sucked the life out of them in 24 to 36 hours. Cattle and buffalo were most susceptible to Rinderpest, but sheep and goats have shown milder clinical signs of the disease, according to the FAO. Cowen said it was terrible to watch animals gasp for air and curl up in contorted positions. The virus does not infect people, but the consequences, especially for cattle-dependent societies, could be deadly. Widespread starvation killed people who used cattle for transport and labor to get food crops in the ground.
Cowen explained that Rinderpest originated in Asia but marauding armies spread the virus all across Europe, shaping history in some cases. The first veterinary clinic was opened in France in the 18th century as an attempt to address the fatal animal disease. The FAO said the last outbreak of Rinderpest was seen in wild buffalo in Kenya in 2001, and the last vaccination took place in 2006. American was free of it by the 1990's and the disease no longer existed in civilized areas but it continued to thrive in remote, war-torn areas such as Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Yemen and Kurdish parts of Iraq and Turkey.
“Eradication of Rinderpest is an incredible turning point for East Africa,” added Peter Walker, PhD, director of FIC and the Irwin H. Rosenberg Professor of Nutrition and Human Security at The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. “It alleviates food insecurity and strengthens the economy, and is a step toward meat exports. Ultimately, we hope the eradication will result in a larger and healthier cattle population and we’ll see fewer of the violent cattle rustling raids that plague the region.”
Global health workers are racing to eradicate other diseases as well. Among them are Guinea worm, river blindness, elephantiasis and polio, which had been expected to be wiped out by now.
Cowen said, “Good animal health always translates into good public health.”