Ridding the World of Rinderpest

Cattle dead from rinderpest circa 1900. (Credit: Texas A&M University)

Humanity’s 5,000 year struggle with the cattle disease rinderpest is over according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.  In 1994, the FAO launched an aggressive program to eradicate this dangerous disease through vaccinations and monitoring, and the last known case was detected in 2001.  Ten years later, in 2011, FAO will officially mark the end of disease.  However, the debate over the strategy to prevent a recurrence and how best to safely store the virus for study is just beginning.

Smallpox is the only other disease completely eradicated from Earth, and rinderpest which is caused by a virus related to the measles virus is more deadly to cattle than smallpox is to humans.  Although it does not infect humans, rinderpest has caused untold human suffering due to starvation when herds of cattle have died from the disease.  This is especially true in Ethiopia where the disease was widespread in the 19th century.

Rinderpest is also a concern for biosecurity and bioterrorism.  According to one researcher, Dr. Jeffrey M.B. Musser, who was quoted in the New York Times, “some experts believe [the spread of rinderpest to Ethiopia] was deliberate, as a form of biological warfare . . . while others contend that it was accidental.”  Rinderpest was studied for its potential use as a biological weapon by countries including Canada, France, the U.S., and the Soviet Union before each abandoned their biological weapons programs.

The FAO plans to formulate a strategy to prevent recurrence of the disease through continued monitoring and preparation of medical countermeasures.  Hopefully, the international biosecurity community will work together with the FAO to ensure that rinderpest is gone for good.

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