One of the greatest scourges of human history is no more. For only the second time, modern public health practices have managed to eradicate a pandemic illness of global reach. The first was smallpox. Now what? AIDS? TB? No. Today, the world's cattle are safe from rinderpest.
If you’ve never heard of rinderpest, it’s likely because you live in America, where thanks to the quarantine of distance and history the disease never established itself. But in the old world, cattle have kept company with humans for some 8,000 years, often in settings of extraordinary intimacy. Farm families throughout Europe lived in crofts, homes that doubled as stables; pastorlists like the Nuer people of Sudan, who drink not only cows’ milk but their blood as well, rely on cattle to supply nearly all their needs.
Through the many generations of coexistence, humans and their domesticated herds have shared their illnesses; smallpox, the only other disease eradicated by modern public health practices, likely began among cattle (the first smallpox vaccines were made by scraping matter from lesions on cows). In rinderpest, we humans returned the favor—scientists now think that the disease, a relative of measles, evolved from the human pathogen as recently as a thousand years ago.
Although no human ever fell ill from rinderpest, its toll on our species has been considerable. With mortality rates among afflicted herds approaching 90 percent, rinderpest outbreaks quickly starved populations of cattle-dependent farmers. In East Africa, its introduction had much the same effect as human diseases did in the New World in the wake of first European contact, laying waste to entire societies and rendering them defenseless in the face of colonialism. It has been blamed for the stagnation of agricultural economies and the rise and fall of empires. Though the last case was seen in 2001, farmers can now rest easy knowing the disease is fully contained. The benefits of rinderpest-free herds to agrarian economies will only grow with time.
Rinderpest's eradication depended on recent innovations in medical practice. It took a combination of technical advances, including a new form of vaccine that doesn’t need to be refrigerated; and culturally sensitive public health protocols, relying on local veterinary assistants rather than pith-helmeted foreign specialists to manage the disease in its far-flung pastures. Its eradication is evidence of one of the curious insights of modern public health: that while disease is global, medicine often takes a village.
[Image: Flickr user Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden]