Rinderpest is an extremely contagious disease of ungulates (animals with cloven hooves) that has been one of the major killers of cattle throughout much of history. It causes fever, swelling, discharges, diarrhea, and eventually death after 6 to 12 days in the animals who catch it. It's caused by a virus, and quarantining or destroying affected animals is often enough to stop its spread, but when these measures aren't taken, the disease can sweep throughout herds of cattle, goats, sheep, camels, pigs, and some wild animals that are susceptible.

The disease seems to have originated in Asia and come west in the oxen that came with Eastern invaders (Mongols, Magyars, Huns, etc.) The oxen were resistant enough to have the virus and spread it without themselves being affected; the buffalo and cattle of the invaded areas had no resistance. It was the 17th century before anyone really figured out what to do about these waves of disease; Pope Clement XI assigned his personal physician, Dr. Lancisi, to contain it somehow. The doctor had the authority to force people to quarantine their herds; farmers who broke his rules got the death penalty. (It may seem a bit harsh, but it was that or starvation for those whose livestock died.)

Great Britain had no rinderpest until 1714, when cows from the Netherlands brought the virus across the North Sea. George I's surgeon Thomas Bates had been to Sicily and knew what Lancisi had done to stop rinderpest; monetary fines were sufficient to eradicate the disease in three months. Unfortunately, in 1745 when the virus came back to England, Bates was no longer in charge, and half a million cattle died before the virus died out. It was just as bad in France two decades later, and in 1762 the world's first veterinary school opened with the aim of training people to combat the disease. More schools sprouted up all over the European continent in the next twenty years.

However, railroads and steam-powered ships allowed livestock to be shipped all over the place in the 19th century and the epizootics of the 1860s were fiercer than ever before. Since this was still before the germ theory of disease, many people did not believe that quarantine would help, and their memories were short enough that the previous century's experience was not used as evidence. After enough trial and error, the disease was largely stamped out in Europe by 1900. In fact, it probably helped the acceptance of the germ theory, since the rich owners of large amounts of livestock were more able to fund research.

However, cattle shipped from India to Africa in 1887-1890 brought the virus with them, and Dutch and U.S. colonists brought infected livestock to Indonesia and the Philippines, respectively. Both places experienced the death of 90% of their cattle, and the colonial administrations took fifteen to thirty years to take control of the situation.

In the 1920s a stable vaccine was finally developed, and animals are immune for life after vaccination. The Americas, Europe, and Australia are essentially rinderpest-free, but it is still a problem in the Middle East, South Asia, and particularly in Africa. Vaccination programs have been quite successful in India, but political instability, slightly different strains of the virus, and difficulty making sure everyone in an area has vaccinated their animals have been causing problems in Africa since the first widespread vaccination attempts in 1960. The Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign, in existence since 1986 and now largely sponsored by the European Union, is doing its best to work toward a target of complete elimination of the disease by 2005.

Sources:
Carlson, Laurie Wynn. Cattle: An Informal Social History. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.
http://www.taa.org.uk/TAA/murrain.htm
http://www.dpi.qld.gov.au/health/3957.html
http://epix.hazard.net/topics/animal/rhindpst.htm
http://www.iaea.or.at/worldatom/Press/Booklets/UndpBook/rinderpest.html

Rin"der*pest (?), n. [G., fr. rind, pl. rinder, cattle + pest pest, plague.]

A highly contagious distemper or murrain, affecting neat cattle, and less commonly sheep and goats; -- called also cattle plague, Russian cattle plague, and steppe murrain.

 

© Webster 1913.

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