Good Riddance to Rinderpest: Human Implications

Abstract & Commentary

By Maria D. Mileno, MD

Dr. Mileno is Director, Travel Medicine, The Miriam Hospital, Associate Professor of Medicine, Brown University, Providence, RI

Dr. Mileno reports no financial relationship to this field of study.

Synopsis: A declaration made on May 25, 2011, by a number of authorities states that the veterinary disease, rinderpest, has been eradicated. While the rinderpest virus does not cause human disease, it is in the Morbillivirus family, which contains important pathogens of humans and animals, such as measles. This perspective, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, gives us insights into the devastation rinderpest once caused, and expresses hope that measles may also soon be eradicated.

Source: Morens DM, et al. Global rinderpest eradication: Lessons learned and why humans should celebrate too. J Infect Dis 2011;204:502-505.

Since the time of the roman empire the animal virus, rinderpest (RPV), German for "cattle plague," has led to countless human deaths from agricultural losses that resulted in famine and disease. The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1887-1892 is attributed to a rinderpest panzootic disease, and caused loss of virtually all cattle, buffaloes, and wild swine as well as many sheep, goats, and wildlife.1,2 Fertile Ethiopian lands became a graveyard without cattle to plow fields and no animal dung to fertilize crops. The disruption of this intricate balance of nature led to a surge of crop-destroying rats and swarms of locusts and caterpillars, resulting in famine and devastation in proportion to that of a biblical plague. Not just responsible for decimation of African species, RPV also affected European bison. Brief importation to the United States in the 1860s was recorded, although disease was not established.3

The virus is a single-stranded RNA virus of the family Paramyxoviridae. Transmission typically occurs via inhalation during close contact with an infected animal with viral-containing nasal oral or fecal secretions. There is a silent incubation period for 8-11 days with prolonged fever and a violent diarrheal stage of 1-2 days causing dehydration and death or gradual recovery. Documented mortality rates often approach 100%, although milder disease, resulting from infections from stable strains with reduced virulence, is associated with lower mortality rates of 5%-10%.

Phylogenic analysis shows that RPV is the closest relative of measles virus. This strongly suggests that RPV or a similar virus gave rise to measles. It is probable that an ancestral RPV-like virus jumped to humans when we began to domesticate cattle for agricultural purposes and the virus evolved into the current infectious agent of the measles virus.


Rinderpest was the first infectious disease to be successfully controlled by active intervention. We can attribute many aspects of infectious disease control practices to rinderpest. The techniques for restriction of animal movement, isolation, animal destruction, and disinfection were later applied to human diseases and became cornerstones of public health practice. Rinderpest led to one of the earliest conceptions of infectious diseases and one of the first plans to vaccinate against an infectious disease — 9 years before the 1720 European introduction of smallpox inoculation.4 The first demonstration of protective maternal immunity and even one of the first uses of a thermometer to document febrile illness are linked to rinderpest. Long associated with war and natural disasters, RPV was one of the first infectious agents to be considered as a potential bioweapon. The ravages of this virus led directly to the establishment of the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) in 1924.

There is no evidence that RPV infects humans symptomatically. That it is so closely related to measles virus may be a boon. A new and somewhat ironic step in disease control of measles might well be this eradication of RPV: Eradicating the ancestor of measles may be accomplished before the eradication of measles itself.5 Measles and RPV share critical features that lend themselves to eradication:

  • A single viral immunotype
  • Few unapparent infections
  • Lack of chronic carrier states
  • Vaccine induction of long-standing protective immunity

Also, measles virus has no extrahuman reservoir. Hence, there would be no hidden pockets of viral propagation to contend with. Rinderpest has had a profound influence on the field of infectious diseases and public health. So too will its eradication.


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  2. Wilkenson L. Rinderpest and mainstream infectious disease concepts in the eighteenth century. Med Hist 1984;28:129-150.
  3. Rinderpest in the Unites States. Boston Med Surg J 1866;74:408-409.
  4. Huygelen C. The immunization of cattle against rinderpest in eighteenth-century Europe. Med Hist1997;41:182-196.
  5. Heymann DL, et al. Measles eradication: Past is prologue. Lancet 2010;376:1719-1720.