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National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

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Animal Disease Rinderpest Eradicated

Cattle Disease Led to Agricultural Loss and Human Famine

This week, officials declared rinderpest, a viral disease affecting more than 40 animal species, successfully eradicated. This is only the second time in history—smallpox was the first—that an infectious disease has been eradicated. German for “cattle plague,” rinderpest has killed hundreds of millions of cattle over nearly 2,000 years. Although the virus does not cause disease in people, indirectly it has caused countless human deaths resulting from agricultural losses that led to human famine and disease.

A new report from a team led by researchers at the National Institutes of Health explores the history and effects of rinderpest outbreaks; the prevention measures—including vaccination—that led to control of the disease; what rinderpest eradication may mean for efforts to control related infectious diseases such as human measles; and the need for more research on how viruses jump from one species to another.

Rinderpest was the first disease to be successfully controlled through quarantine restrictions, depopulation of affected animals, and disinfection of premises, equipment, and other potential sources of contamination.  

As discussed in the article, rinderpest inspired early scientists to study how disease agents spread, contributing to 18th-century theories of infectious disease. Rinderpest also was the target of one of the first campaigns to vaccinate as a strategy for disease elimination. Control efforts included the first use of a thermometer to detect an illness marked by fever. Because of its long association with war and natural disasters, rinderpest virus also is one of the first infectious agents suspected to have been used as a bioweapon. The development in the 1950s of a vaccine to protect cattle, the animal most often infected with rinderpest virus, helped lead to eradication of the disease.

DM Morens et al. Global rinderpest eradication: Lessons learned and why humans should celebrate too. Journal of Infectious Diseases DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jir327 (2011).

David M. Morens, Senior Advisor to the Director of NIAID and co-author of the paper, is available to discuss the article.

To schedule interviews, please contact Nalini Padmanabhan, (301) 402-1663,

NIAID conducts and supports research—at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide—to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at

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Last Updated June 08, 2011

Last Reviewed May 26, 2011