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.
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.
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]