History of battle against rinderpest

  Major events:

  • 18th century: Lancisi suggested control methods that are still valid today.
  • 1762: The world's first vet school opened in Lyons to teach Lancisi principle of rinderpest control.
  • 1920s: J. T. Edwards made a breakthrough by discovering that animals given attenuated rinderpest virus preparation were protected from rinderpest for their whole life.
  • 1924: OIE was created as an itergovernment effort to combat rinderpest.
  • 1957: W. Plowright and R. D. Ferris developed a rinderpest vaccine which was stable, safe and cheap to produce.
  • 1950: Inter-African Bureau of Epizootic Diseases was founded with a directorial plan to eliminate rinderpest from Africa.
  • 1987: The Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign (PARC) began operations in 34 African countries.
  • 1998: Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) backed by FAO, OIE, and IAEA, to eradicate rinderpest by 2010.


High mortality during rinderpest outbreak Rinderpest is probably the most important animal disease historically. Rinderpest is the German word for a disease, caused by a virus, known in English as cattle plague. A murrain was any disease noted in cattle and rinderpest was known as steppe murrain since it was thought of in Europe as a disease from the steppes between Europe and Asia. The disease swept west to the Atlantic and east to the Pacific, associated with marauding armies. Rinderpest has always been associated with war, and unrest, it is the disease of war.

Interestingly rinderpest did not have a dramatic effect on the animals of the invading armies, mainly the Grey Steppe oxen, which were resistant and showed no evidence of disease although they managed to carry the virus. These cattle could produce and shed rinderpest virus for months to start epidemics that devastated buffalo and cattle populations of the invaded countries. The consequences, as now, were lack of transport, untilled fields and starving peasants.

Europe was constantly infected with rinderpest. In the 18th century Pope Clement XI was so alarmed by the number of deaths in the Papal herds, that he instructed his physician, Dr. Lancisi, to take action to control the plague and he concluded, quite correctly but in little detail then of course, that it was " Bovilla peste", a contagion.

"Thus, the disease was caused by exceedingly fine and pernicious particles that pass from one body to another"

It is nice to hear the language of the day Thus, the disease was caused by exceedingly fine and pernicious particles that pass from one body to another." He made recommendations for control that are still valid, these included slaughter to reduce spread; restricted movement of cattle; burial of whole animals in lime and inspection of meat. The penalties for transgressors were drastic; guilty laymen were hung, drawn and quartered and guilty ecclesiastics were sent to the galleys. The Papal edicts were not popular but their application did get rid of rinderpest.

Elsewhere in Europe rinderpest was solidly established (endemic) mainly because of the continuum of wars.

England was hit in 1714 in cattle shipped from the Netherlands and Thomas Bates surgeon to King George I, was commanded ascertain the plagues nature. Bates, had been stationed in Sicily and was familiar with Lancisis edicts. He applied them without the draconian penalties, introducing instead a policy of indemnities. Batess campaign eradicated the disease within three months to the astonishment of continental countries where the ravages continued unabated. Rinderpest re-entered England in 1745 again from the Netherlands. Bates´s was still alive but memories are short and his methods were ignored. The Privy Council in 1749 admitted their failure to control the disease which burnt itself out having killed half-a-million cattle.

First veterinary school

The massive losses of cattle in France induced the founding of a veterinary school to train personnel to control animal diseases. The school, the worlds first, opened in Lyons in 1762 and within a year the trainees were applying Lancisis principles. Within 16 years most European countries except England, followed the example.

Industrial revolution accelerated rinderpest spread

The major event of the 19th century was steam power that enabled shipment of live cattle by rail and sea in numbers previously impossible. The consequences were horrific and from 1857 to 1866 Europe was almost denuded of cattle and Britain did not escape, the Cattle Plague of 1865-67 was a national disaster. The virus came with the first train of Asiatic cattle to reach the Baltic port of Revel and then though to Hull in England. Within weeks the disease was out of control and no one thought to check archives as to what happened in the previous century. Stockowners wanted cures but the failure of medical cures changed the climate of public opinion and a " stamping out" (slaughter) policy was introduced that eradicated rinderpest within months.The epidemic did lead to the establishment of a State Veterinary Service in 1865, almost 200 hundred years behind mainland Europe. The Service was tested twice in the 1870s and both outbreaks were contained within weeks. Since then the British Isles have been free of rinderpest. In the 19th Century the Tzar of Russia had to replenish his treasury and an enormous number of cattle were exported to the West. So many were infected with rinderpest that mainland Europe states banned their import. This loss of revenue to the Tzar prompted steps towards elucidating the cause of rinderpest and accelerated methods for its control.

More rinderpest spread

In the 19th century Europeans were building empires in the tropics. Conquered stockowners were placated by establishing veterinary departments to curb losses. For example, the British government identified Indian murrain as being the same as European rinderpest and estimated that the annual loss was in hundreds of thousands. They recommended a law be enacted for the prevention of spread of murrain, and considered a veterinary school to be essential. There was no mention of eradication methods.

The Netherlands and the U.S.A. colonized Indonesia and the Philippines respectively, in the 1870s and 1880s and in the process introduced rinderpest from mainland Asia. The epidemics were savage causing up to 90% losses. Both invading administrations were quick to establish veterinary departments yet both took 30 years eliminate the disease.

There was a large scale infection (pandemic) in Africa that caused major changes to animal life. Rinderpest entered in 1887 at Massawa from Indian cattle for the Italian army. Rinderpest swept from the Horn of Africa west to the Atlantic and south to the Cape of Good Hope. Ethiopia lost 95% of their cattle and most of the human population starved to death.

By 1896 large numbers of cattle and wild ruminants were dying on both banks of the Zambesi River. Within two weeks most of the cattle around Salisbury were dead. The plague was diagnosed as rinderpest by Dick a graduate who was the telegraphist in Bulawayo. He alerted states in southern Africa and chaos followed. At the end of March the disease entered the South African Republic and moved on remorselessly into Cape Colony and German Southwest Africa in 1897. All attempts to stop the plague failed. The disease burnt itself out in 1905 but lingered on in Equatorial Africa and flared up in Kenya in 1907.

More recent rinderpest appearance

In the late 1980s the Indian Government offered a " peace accord" to Sri Lanka whereby India undertook to station an Indian Peace Keeping Military Force in Sri Lanka to assist authorities subdue a Tamil Insurrection. The force was provisioned from India and the supplies included live goats some of which were visibly sick. Shortly, thereafter, rinderpest was diagnosed in local cattle. It was not until 1999 that Sri Lanka could declare provisional freedom from rinderpest.

Vaccine and treatment development

Rinderpest is a disease caused by a virus so as such there is no antibiotic available to treat disease once established. The only measure that works involves vaccination of animals to induce a protective antibody response, so that they become immune to later infection or in fact administration of serum from recovered animals.

The science of vaccination was not always understood and there have been many attempts at what can be called prophylactic procedures. As an example, Professor B. Ramazzini [1633-1714] attempted to protect cattle from rinderpest in 1711 using infected setons (strips of cloth). Professor E. Semmer discovered the protective powers of serum from recovered animals. This led to the development of serum-virus methods of immunization against rinderpest which became a standard prophylactic procedure until the 1930s.


J. T. Edwards in the 1920s fortuitously modified rinderpest virus by growing it serially in goats (passage). After 600 passages he managed to reduce the infectivity (ability to cause clinical signs and death) of the rinderpest. This is known as attenuation. Very significantly the attenuated virus immunized for life, in other words animals given the attenuated preparation were protected from rinderpest for their whole life.


Freeze-drying of the material (removal of water to leave a powder which could be re dissolved) gave a powdered vaccine with a prolonged shelf-life. Such a goat vaccine (caprinised) was not ideal.

Tissue culture technique helped

rinderpest virus Virology took a large leap forward when it became easy to grow specific cells in tissue culture. As the extent of rinderpest went down, then fear of rinderpest declined and there was a demand for a safer attenuated vaccine. The problem was solved when W. Plowright and R. D. Ferris grew rinderpest virus in cultures of calf kidney cells in 1956-57. By the 90th serial passage the virus was stable, attenuated, and non-infectious. The vaccine was cheap to produce and easy to assay for potency and safety. It quickly became the vaccine of choice and would still be used by most of the world if needed. There have been few developments since then in terms of technique. Most recently J. Mariner increased the shelf-life of lyophilised vaccine to 30 days at 30 °C by adapting it to Vero cells. In keeping with developments in control routine and mass vaccinations against rinderpest have been stopped in all countries, with the exception of a focal pocket to be contained and eradicated by movement controls and vaccination. More on this later.

Molecular vaccines

In the past decade recombinant rinderpest vaccines have been developed in Britain, Japan and the U.S.A. There are some difficulties with their use in terms of vectors chosen. Their virtue is that the handling of infectious rinderpest virus is totally avoided.

National elimination and global eradication of rinderpest

National campaigns against rinderpest were first made in several African countries and in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the middle and late 1940s with good success, indeed in Ceylon the disease was eradicated! Individual states in India also made vaccination campaigns but failed due to lack of a coordinated effort.

In the 1950s the strategy was of agreed mass vaccination in your own country to cut the incidence of the disease. The all India National Campaign was launched in 1954 with spectacular results where within 5 years the rate of infection fell from 2000 per million to 7 per million head. By 1975 the incidence was 2,824. An unexpected high incidence occurred in 1981 provoking an emergency meeting to assess progress. The strategy was changed, fresh funds were obtained, and vaccination was concentrated to high incidence States. In 1995 India was declared provisionally free of rinderpest.

The Inter-African Bureau of Epizootic Diseases was founded in 1950 with a directorial plan to eliminate rinderpest from Africa. Heads of African Veterinary Services met in Kano in 1960 and welcomed proposals to launch a multi-national joint project called JP 15 under the aegis of the Organization of African Unity. The aim was to vaccinate all cattle of all ages in each phase every year for three successive years. Thereafter, each country undertook to vaccinate all calves and weaners annually. Twenty two countries were involved in the JP15 project in the beginning of which 17 had rinderpest. By the end of 1979, only one country, Sudan, admitted to having the disease. This success probably led to some complacency and many of the countries failed to maintain the vaccination of young animals.

There was a resurgence of rinderpest from two foci: first from an area on the Mali-Mauritania border and second from southern Sudan. The eastward moving virus appeared to be a mild strain-causing little symptomology whereas the westward moving virus was highly virulent and caused a disastrous pandemic with heavy losses of livestock. Two million Fulani cattle sickened and half-a-million died in Nigeria. A dreadful sequel was the high suicide rate among Fulani headmen. The Sudan outbreak also invaded Uganda and was taken to Tanzania in cattle acquired by returning soldiers. Tragically the virus spread to wildlife. The pandemic was so widespread that Heads of State pressed O.A.U. to organise a fresh campaign. The Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign (PARC) began operations in 1987 in 34 African countries.

Another pandemic swept across the Near East from Afghanistan in 1969. Mass vaccination was made by FAO in all affected countries. This proved mainly successful and all countries reported freedom, except Lebanon, in 1972. The success once again led to complacency and permitted pockets of disease to linger until 1973. The focus in Lebanon erupted in 1982-83 and was spread to Syria and Israel as a result of troop withdrawals. In India there was a persistent low annual prevalence of 100-200 foci of disease and this continued for 20 years mainly in Northern India despite vaccination of more than 50 million cattle annually. By the late 1970s support for the continuation of the All-India National Rinderpest Campaign was diminished. A resurgence of the extent of the disease in 1982 brought rinderpest back into the political arena.

Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign (PARC)

The success of the campaign involving mass vaccination and surveillance was that in the 1990s most Equatorial countries were declared provisionally free. Small foci persisted in war-torn Sudan and Somalia. The latter focus spilled over into Kenya and Tanzania causing havoc in wildlife, but not in cattle. The virus was recovered from a single bovine gum erosion and proved to be an old African strain virulent for wildlife but non-fatal for cattle. The FAO funded the vaccination of all cattle in northern Tanzania and re-vaccinated three months later. Surveillance checks confirmed that the disease was eradicated.

Global eradication

The FAO organized a meeting to discuss the feasibility of global rinderpest eradication. The sequel was the establishment of the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) backed by FAO, OIE, and IAEA. A GREP Technical Consultation and EMPRES Expert Consultation was held in Rome in September/October 1998 to review the progress made in rinderpest eradication and endorsed the view of the GREP Secretariat that a more vigorous approach is required if global freedom is to be attained by the year 2010. Experts unanimously endorsed the need for an Intensified GREP to complement the existing activities and focus on clarifying any remaining areas of uncertainty and elimination of the last remaining foci of persisting infection in the shortest possible time.

GREP commenced throughout the world in the 1980s with mass immunisation campaigns which extended control to a point where, the remaining foci are few, distinct and isolated.

Players in the game of rinderpest eradication

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

The FAO leads international efforts to defeat hunger. Serving both developed and developing countries, FAO acts as a neutral forum where all nations meet as equals to negotiate agreements and debate policy. FAO is also a source of knowledge and information. We help developing countries and countries in transition modernize and improve agriculture, forestry and fisheries practices and ensure good nutrition for all. Since our founding in 1945, we have focused special attention on developing rural areas, home to 70 percent of the world's poor and hungry people. FAO's activities comprise four main areas:

Animal Production and Health Division (AGA) of FAO and the Emergency Prevention System  EMPRES (Programme of AGA) (link)

EMPRES-Livestock programme continues to play a major role in the fight against persisting and/or spreading transboundary animal diseases at a global level, with emphasis however on developing countries.

Under EMPRES is the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) which has advanced to a stage that large tracts of Asia and Africa have now been free from Rinderpest (RP) for an extended period of time. In fact, RP in Asia has been extinguished; but this needs to be verified, a process EMPRES is currently heavily engaged in with the countries concerned. The Somali Ecosystem seems to be the last host of rinderpest virus in the world. The target of RP elimination globally is still maintained for the year 2010, but the danger of complacency is recognized and keeping the GREP mission on the forefront of the FAO agenda is essential In addition to Rinderpest, EMPRES runs normative and operational activities on the containment and progressive control of various other serious transboundary diseases.


A time-bound programme to eliminate rinderpest from the world by the year 2010. Strategies have been devised and programmes implemented to reduce the clinical incidence of rinderpest to zero. Elimination of disease and infection will be confirmed by statistically valid active disease surveillance programmes. The control of rinderpest to the point we are at today has been a remarkable triumph for veterinary science and national commitment but it has not been achieved without setbacks.

Office International des Epizooties (OIE)

The OIE is an intergovernmental organisation created by the International Agreement of 25 January 1924, signed by 28 countries. In May 2004, the OIE totalled 167 Member ountries. Incursions of rinderpest into Europe and most notably the epizootic which occurred in Belgium in 1920 led to the creation of the OIE.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Maybe the IAEA is not thought as an obvious organisation to be involved in animal diseases. In fact the IAEA has a keen interest in the peaceful uses of nuclear applications in agriculture in general. There is a long track record in continuous support and achievements in agriculture in many disciplines and in many developing countries. The main mechanisms for this help stem from good interaction with its many member states through Technical Cooperation projects funded from core or through extra donations and also through the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre in the form of supporting research and development in biological sciences using nuclear and nuclear related techniques. Support is through equipment and resource supply; training of fellows, supply of expertise; technical contracts to produce necessary items to allow routine testing, meetings, symposia, national and regional projects. Specifically in the field of livestock disease, the Animal Production and Health section has pioneered issues involving development of kits and supply; quality control, kit supply, technology transfer; production of international guidelines. With rinderpest specifically there has been a continuous input into the more technical needs from the mid-1980s.

International guidelines to establish that rinderpest has been eliminated

The OIE takes a major role in setting up guidelines to help countries with livestock disease problems. The internationally agreed procedure to verify eradication of rinderpest is the outlined in the OIE Pathway. This path can start for a country or region when vaccination against rinderpest is stopped. Once a country is satisfied that it has experienced no clinical rinderpest disease for two years after stopping vaccination then the OIE Pathway is entered.

For example, in Africa, the PARC strategy is for all countries to declare provisional freedom from rinderpest for either the whole country or for zones of countries in which foci of infection persist. Similarly for Asia, all countries east of Pakistan are being advised to cease vaccination and embark on the OIE Pathway, as Indian and Bhutan have already done, and several countries in the Near East are similarly ceasing vaccination. This advise has been taken in the main so that animals are now completely susceptible to rinderpest. This period of increasing vulnerability is unavoidable if global eradication is to be achieved and the transition period to final eradication requires careful management. In order to spot any outbreaks od f rinderpest there must be wide spread surveillance. This means looking actively for disease (including for diseases causing similar clinical effects (signs) and also looking at samples taken from suspect animals in the laboratory as well as doing routine sampling to look whether there are signs of infection in the blood through production of specific antibodies. This period is critical and the IAEA has played a major role in helping design the guidelines for OIE and for the surveillance. It has also developed and supplied the tools (nuclear based kits) to allow testing of samples for virus as well as blood for antibodies.

Intensified campaign in last few years- where are we today?

GREP mounted an intensified programme in the past few years based on data that most rinderpest had been eliminated. Several problems remain to be solved before it can be can proved that rinderpest has been eradicated. Some forms of rinderpest are very mild and remain in a few areas as what is termed a persistent state. The intensive campaign was able to focus on the six areas where the virus was suspected to be present, areas that could be determined since the surveillance data was available. In this GREP was greatly assisted by FAO's Technical Cooperation programme (IAEA) and financial assistance from the European Union. This yielded rapid results leading to the situation today where only one reservoir remains.

It is comforting to compare the situation now relative to rinderpest measured in the past. This shows that it has almost been eradicated. The combined efforts of those charged with this eradication programme; the countries and International organizations; is testament to good planning and cooperation and also to the importance of the disease. The danger now is to relax. The IAEA and Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of the IAEA will continue its support until the final declaration of freedom from rinderpest for the whole world.