Rinderpest, a cattle disease that for centuries felled herds in Europe, Africa and Asia and caused periodic human famine, has been eradicated, veterinary epidemiologists announced this week.
Eradication is the Holy Grail of disease prevention and has been successful only once before. Smallpox, an equally devastating human scourge, was eradicated in 1980, proving it is possible to stamp out a microbe across the entire planet. Attempts are underway to rid the world of polio and Guinea worm disease.
The bovine equivalent of measles, rinderpest is described in ancient Chinese writings and in documents from the Roman Empire. It hobbled Charlemagne when he moved herds to support his armies in the 8th century. When it entered Ethiopia in 1889, it caused starvation that killed one-third of the country’s human population, even though the microbe does not infect people.
Even in communities that do not depend on herding for their livelihood, rinderpest could be lethal because it killed draft animals and disrupted agriculture.
“This is quite a momentous occasion for humanity,” said Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which next month at its headquarters in Rome will officially declare the disease eradicated.