The Only Animal Disease to be Eradicated: A Critical Exploration of Rinderpest and Our Future with Diseases

| October 25, 2011 | 0 Comments

A cow afflicted with rinderpest. Photo courtesy of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Disease eradication used to be a somewhat far-fetched idea even after the 1980 eradication of smallpox. It seemed like a one-time nonreplicable incident, simply a historic medical feat. The complicated politics surrounding disease eradication—enforcing water hygiene, reducing stigmatization, establishing a viable healthcare infrastructure system—continue to seem too overwhelming to resolve.

Yet, recent events in the past few months have given us hope that disease eradication is still possible. On Tuesday, June 28th, the United Nations officially recognized the eradication of a disease, called rinderpest, which has plagued cattle for centuries. Among many other neglected disease candidates, including river blindness, guinea worm disease, lymphatic filariasis, and schistosomiasis, that are on the brink of eradication, rinderpest has assumed the title of the second disease ever to be “eradicated”. Approximately ten years have passed since the last case was documented in Kenya in a wild buffalo. This is mostly the result of the significant work of veterinarians, in particular, through certain peace-keeping efforts in areas of political strife where the containment of such diseases is often exacerbated. Given this success, the UN has now acknowledged that the disease is no more.

Although it does not strictly infect humans, rinderpest is highly contagious to several animal species and easily destroys herds of cattle. Its highly threatening consequences were in particular felt in the 19th century, when a rinderpest plague in Africa killed 80-90% of the cattle in sub-Saharan Africa and caused “widespread hunger”.[1],[2] One third of the Ethiopian population ultimately perished.

So, what does this rinderpest eradication actually signify? Such a recent event leads us to the broader question of what disease eradication means, and whether it is actually feasible. According to Merriam-Webster, “eradication” means “to do away completely as if by pulling up by the roots”. In light of this, it seems bold to assert that we can truly “do away completely” with a disease. Moreover, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), eradication has been defined in several ways which include the following: 1) extinction of the disease pathogen, 2) elimination of the occurrence of a given disease even in the absence of all preventive measures, 3) control of an infection to the point at which transmission ceased within a specific area, and 4) reduction of the worldwide incidence of a disease to zero as a result of deliberate efforts, obviating the necessity for further control measures”.[3] Eradication of a disease also depends largely on the social and political commitment and prioritization given to it by governments, NGOs, and pharmaceutical and biotech companies that are highly instrumental in producing vaccines and essential medicines for the control of a disease. In the above case, the elimination of rinderpest was a highly collaborative effort between governments, the IAEA, the UN FAO’s Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme, UN Developmental Programme, World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), with funding from the European Union, Japan, Ireland, the US, UK, France, Italy, Sweden, among others.[4]

Prior to the eradication of rinderpest, guinea worm disease (dracunculiasis) was set to become the second disease to be eradicated, mostly due to major efforts by the Carter Center. Under former President Jimmy Carter, and Vice President of Health Programs, Dr. Donald Hopkins, the prevalence of guinea worm disease in various sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana and Sudan, was drastically decreased. Although disease eradication for many other diseases have also seemed imminent, in recent decades, intensive and focused efforts on eradicating malaria and polio—two significant diseases—have not been fruitful.

One of the many problems with disease eradication in developing countries is the lack of a viable market for vaccines, appropriately named anti-poverty vaccines, and drugs. Research and Development (R&D) lags behind with regards to developing drugs since pharmaceutical companies do not have enough of an incentive to pursue such developments. Handing out intellectual patents for discoveries is also not feasible since there isn’t much enforcement of research products, while on the other hand, having governments or organizations agree to pay for the research process may skew the results of how effective the drugs actually are. In the case of the development of a certain malaria vaccine, funds for research were actually going into the personal funds of the principal investigator instead of into the research. Furthermore, another alternative is to have a tiered pricing system in which developed countries pay more for a drug, while developing countries pay a lower price. Yet, this can also be seen as unjust and unfair. When President Bill Clinton “announced his plan to immunize all children against a standard list of diseases in 1993,” he said, “I cannot believe that anyone seriously believes that America should manufacture vaccines for the world, sell them cheaper in foreign countries, and immunize fewer kids as a percentage of the population than any nation in this hemisphere but Bolivia and Haiti”. Clearly, such a pricing system would induce massive outcries.[5]

Moreover, there are other compounding factors that are equally important, including socio-economic factors that are linked to the reasons human diseases persist. Many of those afflicted with diseases are stigmatized and marginalized within their communities. Young women and children are especially vulnerable, and men who are severely disabled or disfigured from diseases attempt to hide their condition, which delays how fast they pursue care and treatment. Furthermore, such populations continue to lack political clout because their wage-earning capacity and working productivity decline as the disease worsens. Moreover, without proper community health workers or health educators, afflicted populations may not understand the ways in which they can prevent the disease. Simple sanitary techniques go a long way in protection from diseases, but oftentimes, the poorest populations do not have access to such tools or health education. Also, an interesting and significant point is that urbanization and economic development were the two factors that contributed most to the eradication of disease in currently developed countries which previously battled with certain now-neglected diseases. For several developing countries seeking to eradicate neglected diseases today, it is clear that disease eradication goes hand in hand with economic development.

Another hurdle to disease eradication is that there is currently still a much greater emphasis on the big “three”—tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria. There is much less attention paid to other diseases that also create long-term sufferers even though they may not have as high of a mortality rate. Ultimately, we must prioritize disease eradication, especially neglected disease eradication, and take the example of rinderpest eradication as a step forward in this endeavor. Hopefully, people can collaborate more efficiently to solve the multifaceted issue of disease control. We’ve done it once; now, let’s do it again.


[1] Mcneil, Donald G. Jr. “Rinderpest, Scourge of Cattle, Is Vanquished.” The New York Times. June 27, 2011.

[2] Brown, David. “Rinderpest, or ‘cattle plague,’ becomes only second disease to be eradicated.” The Washington Post National. May 27, 2011.

[3] “Rinderpest eradicated—what next?” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. June 28, 2011.

[4] “Deadly cattle disease eradicated, UN declares.” CBC News. June 28, 2011.

[5] Hotez, Peter J. “Forgotten people, forgotten diseases: the neglected tropical diseases and their impact on global health and development” ASM Press. 2008.

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Category: Infectious, Online

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