The Romans couldn’t beat it when they ruled the world, but today in Rome the UN has declared the eradication of rinderpest, the second disease in all of human history to be successfully wiped out after smallpox. Scientists are celebrating victory over a deadly animal disease that cattle herders around the world have dreaded for millennia.

We are still very reliant on livestock to feed our bellies and economy, but way back when if your animals fell to rinderpest your family had a good chance of starving and succumbing to a similar fate.

UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Animal Health Service Chief, Juan Lubroth explains:

“If you could imagine that you are an owner of 100 animals, a milking herd, by the end of the week, you would have zero, it would go so fast through the population. By having had a good vaccine and eradicating rinderpest, I think, from a food security point of view, this is a tremendous accomplishment.”

When rinderpest first hit sub-Saharan Africa in the late 19th century, it killed 80 to 90% of the region’s cattle and triggered severe famines.

At its widest extent, in the 1920s, rinderpest stretched from northern Europe to southern Africa and east to the Philippines.

Rinderpest becomes only the second disease besides smallpox to be found nowhere on earth but frozen away in a few laboratory vials, making the world a little safer for cattle and the people who depend on them.

Dr. Peter Cowen, who is an associate professor of epidemiology and public health at North Carolina State University and whose work has focused on disease control and eradication, said rinderpest’s eradication shows the effectiveness and potential benefits of interdependent global veterinary services.

Cowen continues:

“The eradication of rinderpest is a tremendous achievement for every veterinarian everywhere, and it shows the progress of the veterinary profession, both in developed countries but also in countries that are still growing in their capacity and still developing in their veterinary infrastructures. It’s not evenly spread, but we’ve been very efficient about using the capacity, where it exists, to be effective in places where it doesn’t. When you invest in veterinary medicine, you’re really investing in the well-being of society because of the central role of animals in society.”

Dr. Cowen hopes that effective and convincing post-eradication surveillance will show national and international organizations, such as the World Bank and U.N. agencies, that veterinary medicine can solve global problems.

The eradication program relied on the successful collaboration of governments, international and regional organizations, the veterinary profession, and the scientific community, in addition to donors like the European Union.

Lubroth concludes:

“A declaration of global rinderpest eradication comes with great responsibility. Although the rinderpest virus has disappeared from nature, there’s still much that the Global Rinderpest Eradication Program (GREP) needs to put into place. We will try to continue with the GREP program of FAO for the next five to ten years to ensure that laboratories and research facilities have good custodianship over that virus, and that the research that is being done is monitored.”

Sources: The Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme and The American Veterinary Medical Association

Written by Sy Kraft