Last week’s story (see Stopping the unstoppable) about the expected eradication, in late 2010, of rinderpest emphasized that the disease, which affects cattle and other split-hooved ruminants such as wildebeest and water buffalo, has been, across history, the most devastating livestock disease ever known. But the success of the long war against rinderpest is even more significant than the eliminating a livestock plague, according to Bill White, USDA’s rinderpest expert.

For one thing, rinderpest "is only the second disease to be successfully eradicated from the globe," said White, director of the foreign animal disease laboratory at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "The other is smallpox."

Rinderpest has never been found in the U.S. – or, for that matter, anywhere in the New World with the exception of a small outbreak in Brazil in the 1920s that was traced to a herd of Brahman cattle that had been imported from Asia by way of Belgium, said White. The Belgian rinderpest outbreak at the time, which newly threatened Europe with the disease that had caused devastation to beef and dairy production across Europe for centuries, directly led to the creation of the World Organization of Animal Health (known in general by its French acronym, OIE). The APHIS official said that the oceans surrounding North, Central and South America had helped keep rinderpest at bay, but just as important were rinderpest eradication efforts "in countries we do a lot of trading with," including the United Kingdom, France, Italy and other European nations.

As noted last week, the upper hand against rinderpest was finally gained though the work of Dr. Walter Plowright, a British veterinary scientists, who developed an effective vaccine against rinderpest in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But White told that APHIS research made a key contribution to Plowright’s vaccine: "Jeff Mariner and Tim House at APHIS figured out how to make the vaccine thermo-stable. You could take a vial of it anywhere in a tropical country. The older vaccine had to be refrigerated, which was a real problem in places like Africa." Since then, APHIS’s Plum Island research laboratory has worked on a genetically modified rinderpest vaccine.

"It’s a very nasty disease," White pointed out, with an 80-90-percent mortality rate. The few surviving animals of an outbreak are immune to rinderpest for the remainder of their lives, but immunity is not passed on genetically through bulls but to calves through colostrum fed by the mother.

Research suggests that it originated in Asia in the centuries before Christ. Aristotle wrote of a livestock disease that may have been rinderpest, White said, and rinderpest can be definitely be identified in writings dating back to 600 A.D. "It was mainly a disease of Europe and Asia, and historically it followed armies and marauders," he commented. With medieval European and Asian history so much the story of invasion after invasion, it’s easy to see how rinderpest spread across the continents with its ruin and devastation.

On the other hand, rinderpest also was the reason for the founding of the very first veterinary school, in Lyons, France, in 1762, and combating the disease also figured in the development of the modern thermometer in the 17th and 18th centuries. The spread of medical tools and veterinary knowledge did not prevent rinderpest’s introduction into Africa in 1887, however. The disease was particularly devastating in tropical regions and had the power to reshape entire societies, which could be hugely impacted by famine and starvation from rinderpest outbreaks. White said that one outbreak in Ethiopia caused one-third of all Ethiopians to die, even though humans are not directly susceptible to the rinderpest virus.

"Whenever you’re dealing with a disease with a long history, what we’ve learned is that coming together is the best way to fight it. We’ve learned as a country that working for global eradication is better in the long run for us as well as everyone," White told He said that APHIS’s work on rinderpest has also produced a lot of data and knowledge about vaccinology.

In the wake of FAO’s announcement in early December that rinderpest will be officially declared eradicated next year, the organization and the OIE are holding talks about what to do with any remaining stocks of the virus. White said there may be an agreement made such as the one covering remaining stocks of smallpox virus, half of which are held under extremely tight security in the United States and half in Russia.

The eradication of the world’s most devastating livestock disease "is something the entire global community can be proud of," White comment. "Rinderpest has caused almost unimaginable misery and for a very long time. Its eradication is very significant."