You may not know what rinderpest was. But if you knew that this cattle killer was believed to have been a biblical plague and helped bring down the Roman Empire, you’d cheer that we wiped it off the face of the Earth.
Rinderpest, meaning “cattle plague” in German, was believed to have emerged at around 10,000 BC, around the same time as smallpox. However, up until 1000 AD, it was virtually indistinguishable from measles, making it unlikely that it confounded Pharaoh. That doesn’t take away its pedigree, as it still took more than a thousand years for it to be destroyed.
And people went to great lengths to see that it didn’t affect their meat and dairy products, pushing science forward in the process:
In 1713, when it threatened the papal herds, Pope Clement XI asked his personal physician, Dr. Giovanni Maria Lancisi, to stop it… Dr. Lancisi prescribed quarantine measures that were nearly as brutal to humans as to cattle. Charlatan “cures” were banned; priests were ordered to stop relying on prayer alone and to preach from the pulpit that all herds with any sick members were to be slaughtered and buried in lime, while healthy herds were to be kept isolated. Any layman who resisted or cheated was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Any disobeying priest was to be sent to the galleys for life.
By the 1750s, dairymen in England and the Netherlands were experimenting with a crude early form of inoculation: soaking a cloth in a diseased cow’s mucus, then sewing it into a cut in a healthy cow. It did not always protect, and sometimes killed.
In 1761, the first school of veterinary medicine was founded in Lyon, France, specifically to fight rinderpest.
In 1924, a new and devastating European outbreak was the impetus for creating the World organisation for Animal Health, the veterinary equivalent of the World Health organisation.
The disease was finally declared gone a full 10 years after the last known case was reported. This after decades of small successes and major setbacks trying to introduce the vaccine to the hard hit subsistence herders of Eastern Africa. So its being eradicated, 30 years after the cure of smallpox, is a sign of hope for those seeking the destruction of other diseases afflicting mankind. [NYT]