The announcement earlier this week by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that rinderpest, an historically devastating cattle disease, is expected to become effectively extinct in 2010 was not widely trumpeted in the U.S. for a simple reason: rinderpest has never been found in the U.S. cattle herd. In fact, according to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, there is no record of rinderpest infecting cattle anywhere in the New World.

But that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of rinderpest’s eradication. Across the centuries it has been one of the most deadly and devastating livestock diseases, its effect often likened to the havoc smallpox caused in humans. In Europe, a disastrous outbreak in the 18th century, which killed hundreds of thousands of cattle in France, was one of the causes of the French Revolution of 1789. More recently, rinderpest has killed millions of cattle in famine-plagued Africa, depriving uncountable millions of Africans of a crucial source of food. In addition to cattle, rinderpest can infect sheep, goats and wild ruminants such as water buffalo, wildebeest and even giraffes, according to the Organization for Animal Health, or OIE. Its mortality rate can approach 100 percent if affected livestock aren’t quickly treated, and some outbreaks have been so devastating that anthropologists have found profound effects on the social structures of some aboriginal and agricultural societies.

Recent outbreaks resulting in the deaths of thousands of cattle have occurred in Pakistan, South Asia and Africa. The turnaround in the war against the disease was brought by the work of Dr. Walter Plowright, a British veterinary scientists, who developed an effective vaccine against rinderpest in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was awarded the World Food Prize in 1999 for his work. According to the FAO, the control of rinderpest has contributed more than $45 billion in additional cattle output in Africa alone since vaccinations with the Plowright vaccine began. FAO estimates that more than 70 million tons of meat and more than 1 billion tons of milk have been added to food production totals in the developing world, and the increase in healthy cattle – integral throughout Asia and Africa for fertilizing soils, planting and cultivating crops, and carrying loads– has also boosted production rates on subsistence farms worldwide.

While rinderpest has never been a factor in U.S. beef and dairy production, Plowright’s work, in conjunction with APHIS research, contributed significantly to control of African swine fever, sheeppox, and pox- and herpes viruses.