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Dan Salmon, Regional Veterinarian, Deniliquin

Posted Flock & Herd June 2015


Rinderpest was the second disease to be eradicated from the planet and, so far the only disease of animals to be eradicated.

The virus has not been eliminated: there are sure to be some of the virus stored in (hopefully) high security facilities around the world, but it is no longer present in the field.

The extremely high morbidity and mortality of rinderpest resulted in it influencing many aspects of world history, not just agriculture, and was the main factor in transforming farriers into veterinarians.


Rinderpest is (was) caused by a morbillivirus. It has similar properties and is serologically related to other morbilliviruses such as measles, canine distemper and peste des petits ruminants.

It affected cattle, buffalo, yaks and many wildlife ungulate species.

It usually spread rapidly by contact and morbidity and mortality in susceptible populations was 80-100%

The virus caused inflammation and necrosis of mucosal membranes resulting in discharges from the nose, mouth, eyes and genitals and severe diarrhoea. Most affected animals died within two weeks and there was no persistent carrier state.


Rinderpest was not accurately described until the scientific methods of the Enlightenment of the early 17th Century but papyri describe a condition that was possibly rinderpest in Egypt towards the end of the Middle Kingdom (1640-208 BC).

Aristotle (384-322 BC) in Stagiritae de Historia Animalium described the two main diseases of cattle, the Podagra (disease of the foot) that is likely to have been foot and mouth disease and the Struma (fever) that is likely to have been rinderpest.

The Roman writer Severus Sanctus Endelichus described a major epizootic clearly identifiable as rinderpest following the invasion of Europe by the Huns in 370. The Grey Steppe cattle used by the Huns were believed to be resistant to rinderpest so that it spread slowly and maintained a condition that was similar to a carrier state. This allowed the disease to spread through Europe: an early example of biological warfare.

The Mongol invasions of Europe by Genghis Khan and his successors were associated with pandemics of rinderpest in 1222, 1233 and 1238.

For much of history the devastation due to pandemics of rinderpest has resulted in starvation, social upheaval and the collapse of empires.


Rinderpest is German for cattle plague. In other languages it is peste bovine, pesta bovina and sotoka (Kiswahili for a debilitating killer disease of cattle).

Rinderpest was periodically introduced into Europe as a result of warfare where cattle were used for draught, rations or war prizes and moved the infection with them.

With the Enlightenment and the development of scientific methods, rinderpest was recognised as a contagious condition and control measures including quarantine and stamping out supported by strong legal controls were developed.

The need to train specialists to control rinderpest resulted in the French Controller-General of Finances ordering the establishment of the first veterinary school in Lyon in 1761. In following years veterinary schools were established in other European countries and state veterinary services were also established to regulate and enforce the control of rinderpest.

The result of these efforts was that rinderpest was effectively eradicated from Europe by the middle of the 19th Century.


The only recorded incident of rinderpest in Australia was in 1923 at Fremantle.

The infection came from cattle that had come from Derby in a ship that also had pigs from Singapore aboard as ship's stores.

The disease spread from the holding area to stray cattle and then to a common and on until 28 herds were infected.

As usual there were initial doubts as to the identity of the disease, but once rinderpest was diagnosed the disease was eradicated by quarantine and slaughter.

Even then the eradication program involved assistance from veterinarians from the Commonwealth and other states.


Rinderpest had a significant effect on the outcome of the European rush to colonise Africa. Africa was also the continent that was the last outpost of infection and the efforts to eradicate rinderpest from Africa should be a lesson to anyone with an interest in robust disease control programs.

The impact of rinderpest was magnified by the central role that cattle played in many African communities as a measure of wealth and status, a currency and a negotiating tool.

A papyrus manuscript discovered in the 19th century describes a disease in Egypt towards the end of the Middle Kingdom (1640 BC-208 BC) that was probably rinderpest. The description is said to have been quite poetic and certainly one translation (Becher, 1997) is quite flowery:

"their hearts weep; cattle moan".

Despite this early incident rinderpest never really became established enough in Africa for the native cattle to reach a state of tolerance to the infection so that subsequent incursions of the disease had devastating effects.

Infection introduced in 1841 killed about 665,000 cattle. Once that outbreak had run its course the disease was reintroduced with restocker cattle in 1843 and killed another 350,000 head.

Once again the depredations of rinderpest stimulated the establishment of the first African veterinary school in Egypt.

The great pandemic in sub-saharan Africa from 1889 to 1897 devastated the continent and paved the way for European colonization. Over 90% of the cattle died and the vast herds of susceptible wildlife were also devastated.

The effect of the loss of their main source of sustenance also severely weakened the African communities. The grandson of an early colonist in Kenya informed me that at the turn of the 19th Century there were fewer than a million people left in East Africa, leaving large areas of land open to the colonists (Grant pers comm).

Rinderpest killed more than the cattle and wildlife. By destroying the wildlife hosts of tsetse flies it eliminated those insects and the trypanosomiasis that they carried from a significant part of East Africa. This resulted in the belief that significant areas of East Africa were unsuited to the flies, a belief that was shattered as wild and domestic hosts of tsetse flies returned.

Eradication of rinderpest in Africa was almost achieved under the Joint Program 15 of the Organisation of African Unity from 1962 to 1976. When the funding for this program ran out rinderpest spread across Africa again and the whole exercise had to be repeated with the Pan African Rinderpest Campaign 1986-1998.


The Global Rinderpest Eradication Campaign (GREP) was established in 1994 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It co-ordinated worldwide efforts to eradicate rinderpest and helped individual countries to achieve eradication.

By 2006 the last pockets of rinderpest in wildlife along the Somalia/Kenya border appeared to have been eliminated and in 2013 rinderpest was declared eradicated from the world: only the second disease after smallpox to reach that milestone.


Rinderpest was a key factor in the development of the veterinary profession beyond the Anglophone model of superior farriers. It was a factor in the rise and fall of empires and its eradication was a demonstration that the application of simple principles are effective so long as the last 10% of the work is done.


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