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What Is Rinderpest?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Rinderpest defines a highly contagious animal disease declared eradicated in 2011 after centuries of pandemics in Africa, Asia, and Europe that wiped out large herds of hoofed animals. This disease strikes cattle and other species with cloven hooves, including wildebeests, pigs, deer, antelope, and yaks. It is similar to measles in humans and may have originated in oxen in Central Asia in the 1200s.

The eradication of rinderpest denotes only the second time in history that an infectious disease has been obliterated, with smallpox in humans as the first disease halted in 1980. Rinderpest is linked to several eras in history, including the fall of the Roman Empire, leading to the starvation of thousands of people when animal herds died. Historical records show that in 1889, one-third of the population in Ethiopia died of starvation linked to the disease. It is estimated that 200 million cattle in Europe alone died over several centuries after rinderpest infected the animals.

Researchers believe the disease spread via infected oxen used by Mongolian troops when they invaded Eurasia in the 1200s. That led to a series of recurring pandemics as domesticated animals were imported into other parts of the world as working herds or food sources. Scientists believe some deaths may have stemmed from other diseases with symptoms similar to rinderpest, marked by a high fever, runny nose, and diarrhea that depletes the animal’s protein store.

Experts began looking for a way to control the disease in 1945, but it took more than 35 years to develop a vaccine to stop the spread of rinderpest. A diagnostic test developed in the 1990s helped identify sick animals, speeding the eradication of the disease. The disease can be identified by swabbing the eye of an ill animal and examining samples in a laboratory.

Throughout history, attempts to control the disease involved ineffective methods, including the use of bile from sick animals. The earliest reports of slaughtering ill animals occurred in the 1700s in Italy, which helped stop the spread of rinderpest in that country. China quarantined cattle and killed diseased herds in the 1950s to address an outbreak. Problems persisted in Africa, where remote tribes herded animals over large areas of land without knowledge of the disease.

Educational campaigns and vaccine distribution intensified in the 1970s, and herders were urged to vaccinate their animals. New vaccines that didn’t require refrigeration helped with eradication efforts in Africa. India also struggled with controlling the disease because of religious taboos against killing sick cattle, and relied solely on vaccination until 1995. The last known case of rinderpest occurred in Kenya in 2001.

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