August 24, 2011


There was quite a fanfare when Smallpox was officially eradicated 1979. This year saw the second-ever eradication of an infectious disease, which seems to have been much less widely reported. That disease is Rinderpest. An informal survey at a party the other day suggests that while just about everyone has heard of smallpox, almost no-one knows anything about Rinderpest.

Rinderpest used to be devastating in the UK, but we’ve not had a case here since 1877, which may explain why it’s not as well-known as, say, foot and mouth! It’s a viral disease of cattle, buffalo, and some other even-toed ungulates, from the same family as canine distemper and measles. Rinderpest is a deadly and highly infectious disease, with mortality rates of over 80% in naive populations. It does not, however, survive long in the environment. This means that slaughter, movement control, and import restrictions are an effective battery of measures; these were used to clear rinderpest from much of Europe in the late 19th century.

Globally, however, hygiene measures alone were not sufficient. The development of an effective vaccine was, therefore, a real breakthrough. Effective co-ordinated vaccination campaigns lead by the FAO meant that by the mid 1990s rinderpest was confined to six areas of the world (four in Asia, two in Africa). The Global Rinderpest Eradication Campaign (GREP) was launched in 1994, aiming to eliminate rinderpest by 2010. This was a major effort, involving epidemiology, vaccination, careful surveillance extending for years after the last observed case, and training of local veterinary services, and was very successful – the last known case of rinderpest was found in Kenya in 2001. Another decade of surveillance based on state of the art diagnostic tests revealed no further cases, and so rinderpest was officially declared eradicated in June 2011.

If you want to know more about rinderpest, there’s a good article on the IAH’s website here.

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