The invasive rinderpest virus is no more

For only the second time in history scientists have succeeded in eradicating a viral infectious disease. The first was over 30 years ago, when in 1979 scientists from the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that smallpox (Variola vera), an infectious human disease that had claimed the lives of hundreds of millions of people, was officially no longer an epidemic of human concern. Yesterday, Scientists from the UN reported rinderpest virus (RPV), an infectious virus causing cattle plague had been eradicated from the areas of the last known outbreaks.

Cow nose close-up
Picture courtesy of Publicenergy

Historically the rinderpest virus, spread via secretions and in aerosolized particles from infected animals, has impacted upon many regions of the world, originating in Asia but going on to occur widely throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. The rinderpest virus caused major pandemics across Europe in the eighteenth century leading to early inoculation experimentation in Britain and later in the Netherlands. Results were mixed, however, and inoculation regimes were not carried out extensively, with methods including large scale slaughter favoured to limit the spread of the virus. In southern Africa, up to 90% of cattle and buffalo were wiped out by the virus in the late nineteenth century, with 100% mortality not uncommon in immunologically naive populations.

In the 1960s, veterinary scientist Walter Plowbright developed an effective rinderpest vaccine and attempts to eradicate the virus worldwide were initiated. Widespread eradication of rinderpest for a long time proved difficult, however, with little coordination of vaccination regimes between countries leading only to temporary suppression of the virus before it was reintroduced from another region. It was not until eradication attempts were unified around the world that the virus was eventually eliminated with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announcing on 14th October, 2010 that it was confident that the virus had been wiped out.

The rinderpest virus can now be struck from the Global Invasive Species Database “100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species” list. This is a fantastic demonstration of the combined effort of scientists, governments, land and cattle owners working together across the world to produce a result that will benefit generations to come.

Corin Pratt
Invasive Species Research Scientist

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