Another One Bites the Dust: Rinderpest Eradicated

Many of the largest threats to human health are caused by microscopic viruses. Thousands of people die each year from these vicious and diverse entities. Some notable examples include HIV, influenza, Ebola, West Nile…the list goes on. But viruses can also inflict misery on human beings by attacking the animals we farm for food.

In 1979 the WHO announced that the smallpox virus had been eradicated from the globe. While stocks remain in a few labs, the disease is no longer roaming amongst its human hosts causing disease and death. The annihilation of smallpox was a huge accomplishment, and was the result of a massive vaccination campaign that began in the late 19th century.

And at the end of May of this year, our second victory over viruses was reported. Again, through a massive vaccination program, the World Organization for Animal Health (or as I like to call it, WOAH!) announced that the rinderpest virus had been purged from the world’s cattle.

Rinderpest was a very common infection in domestic cattle in northern Europe and Africa from as early as the 7th century, and the measles virus probably evolved from this virus in the 11th or 12th century. The symptoms of rinderpest included fever, diarrhea, and mouth ulcers, and frequently resulted in death. Due to the highly infectious nature of the disease it could quickly decimate entire herds of livestock.

As you can imagine, cattle farmers had a vested interest in figuring out how to prevent their animals from contracting rinderpest. A considerable amount of research was conducted in rural parts of the Netherlands in the middle of the 18th century. However, attempts by medical professionals and farmers were hindered for a short while when local religious authorities in the province of Freisland announced that rinderpest was a plague sent by God to teach the Frisian people a lesson. They decreed that the only possible solution was fasting and prayer.

Despite religious opposition, various Dutch doctors continued their research into rinderpest inoculation, with dubious success. While inoculation (purposeful infection with live virus) had worked in the prevention of smallpox, it proved less effective for rinderpest, and frequently resulted in disease. But farmer Geert Reinders made a breakthrough in 1774. He discovered that  calves of mothers who had survived rinderpest infection could be effectively inoculated. His experiments, published in 1776, were one of the first examples of maternally derived immunity.

In 1924 the WOAH (okay, its real acronym is OIE) was formed in response to continued devastating outbreaks of rinderpest. Dr. Watler Plowright, a veterinary surgeon, was instrumental in developing a highly effective vaccine that was subsequently deployed worldwide. The last major epidemic occurred in Africa in the 1980s. It began in Sudan, and swept through the continent killing millions of cattle and wildlife, costing the region an estimated $500 million.

But it’s gone; the last confirmed case of rinderpest was documented in Kenya in 2001. This fact, while being great for cattle farmers around the world, also emphasizes the power of vaccination to rid the world of viral diseases. Researchers are all too aware of the difficulty of treating constantly mutating viruses, but the ability to prevent them is within our grasp. Let’s hope I’ll be writing more stories about viruses in the past tense in the years to come.


Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.



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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. geeka

    wrote on June 8, 2011 at 2:10 pm


  2. [email protected]

    wrote on June 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    We have a winner – congratulations!

  3. albert rozo

    wrote on June 8, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Geert Reinders

  4. Priyanka Vyas

    wrote on June 8, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    He was the Farmer whose experiments led to the breakthrough.

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