The Geographical Journal

The Eradication of the Deadly Rinderpest Virus

By Paulette Cully
Researchers at the United Nations (UN) have announced that the deadly cattle  virus rinderpest has become the second viral disease to be totally eradicated by man. The first was the extermination of smallpox over 30 years ago. The rinderpest virus originated in Asia but spread throughout the world with help from imported livestock and invaders such as Genghis Khan, who introduced oxen which carried the disease to other countries. Over 80% of cattle which contract the disease die from it because it causes respiratory and gut problems that lead to diarrhoea and dehydration.
As the virus spread, it left vast numbers of dead animals in its wake leaving communities without meat and milk. Also the loss of the animals crippled farming because they were used to plough the land. All in all this led to widespread starvation.  In addition to this, there was also interplay between rinderpest pandemics and sleeping sickness epidemics; sleeping sickness is a parasitic disease of both animals and humans transmitted by the tsetse fly. This was because where the decline in livestock to rinderpest was partly addressed by restocking from elsewhere; this restocking may have introduced T.b. rhodesiense to previously unaffected areas resulting in serious outbreaks of sleeping sickness. This, relationship is described in the 2009, Geographical Journal article ‘The gloomy forebodings of this dread disease’, climate, famine and sleeping sickness in East Africa’ by Endfield et al.. The article also discusses the association between climate, environmental, socio-economic and political contexts and disease.
In Britain rinderpest was eradicated by 1867 through culls and import restrictions, after the creation of the national veterinary service in 1865. Globally, the UN and the World Organisation for Animal Health began an eradication program in 1994 by identifying and killing infected cattle and then vaccinating animals in surrounding areas to protect them from the disease. It appears that the eradication program was possible because rinderpest has always remained as a single strain since its identification and therefore all animals could be protected by the same vaccine. The last animal vaccinations were given in 2006 and targeted observations in 2009 found no new cases of the disease. As a result the UN closed field operations to inhibit the disease this year.

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