The Murrain Now Known As
Rinderpest Newsletter of the Tropical
Newsletter of the TropicalAgriculture Association, U.K., 20 (4) 14-16 (2000)
with the permission of the editor and the author
Gordon R. Scott
University of Edinburgh
The German "Rinderpest" is the English euphemism for the murrain known as cattle plague. The name hides the desolation wrought by a disease that ravaged cattle herds domesticated in Asia 8-9000 years ago. The English name "steppe murrain" reflects the belief in Europe that its homeland was the steppes between Europe and Asia from where waves of rinderpest swept west to the Atlantic and east to the Pacific in the retinues of marauding Asian armies.
The secret weapons of the invaders
were Grey Steppe oxen. Their value was a strong innate resistance
manifested by slow spread of virus and by the absence of clinical
signs. A troop of Grey Steppe cattle could shed rinderpest virus for
months provoking epidemics that devastated buffalo and cattle
populations of the invaded countries. The sequelae were no transport, untilled
fields, starving peasants, and overthrown governments.
Rural Europe was laid waste
constantly until the 18th century when the number of deaths in the Papal herds
so alarmed Pope Clement XI that he instructed his physician, Dr.
Lancisi, to prescribe measures for the suppression of the plague. Lancisi
concluded that it was " Bovilla peste" and recognized that it
was a contagion. [Thus, the disease was caused by
"exceedingly fine and pernicious particles that pass from one body to
another."] His recommendations for its containment are still valid.
[Lancisi's recommendations included slaughter to reduce
spread, restricted movement of cattle, burial of whole animals in lime, and
inspection of meat.] The penalties for transgressors were drastic; guilty laymen were hung, drawn
and quartered and guilty ecclesiastics were sent to the
galleys. The [Papal] edicts were not popular but their application rid Romagna of
rinderpest. Elsewhere in Europe rinderpest was endemic being fanned frequently into
point epidemics by a continuum of wars.
Rinderpest re-entered England in
1745 in trade stock from the Netherlands. Bates’s was still alive but
memories are short and his methods and irate epistles were ignored. The Privy
Council in 1749 admitted their failure to control the disease which burnt
itself out having killed half-a-million cattle.
The massive losses of cattle in
France induced the Comptroller General of Finances to found a veterinary school to
train a cadre to control animal diseases. The school, the world’s first,
opened in 1762 in Lyons and within a year the trainees were applying
Lancisi’s principles. Within 16 years most European countries followed suit.
Only England held back.
The seminal event of the 19th
century was of the introduction of steam power that enabled the shipment of live cattle by rail and
sea in numbers previously impossible. The sequel was inevitable: in 1857
to 1866 Europe was denuded of cattle. Britain did not escape. The Cattle
Plague of 1865-67 was a national disaster. The virus came with the
first trainload of Asiatic cattle to reach the Baltic port of Revel from where
they were shipped to Hull in the steamship "Tonning."
Within weeks the disease was out of control. No one in the Privy Council thought to
check their archives as to what happened in the previous century. Stockowners
wanted cures but the failure of medical cures changed the climate of
public opinion and a "stamping out" policy was introduced that
eradicated rinderpest within months.
In the 19th century Europeans were empire building in the tropics. They appeased conquered stockowners by establishing veterinary departments to curb losses. For example, when the British government took firm control of India they recalled Col. J. H. B. Hallen, the Principal of the Royal Veterinary College, to lead the Commissioners appointed by the Viceroy to Inquire the Origin, Nature, Etc., of Indian Cattle Plague. They identified Indian murrain as being the same as European rinderpest and estimated that the annual loss was in hundreds of thousands. They recommended a law be enacted for the prevention of spread of murrain, and considered a veterinary school to be essential. There was no mention of Bates’s eradication methods.
The Netherlands and the U.S.A.
respectively colonized Indonesia and the Philippines in the 1870s and 1880s
and in the process introduced rinderpest from mainland Asia. The
epidemics were savage causing up to 90% losses. Both invading
administrations were quick to establish veterinary departments yet both took 30 years
eliminate the disease.
By 1896 large numbers of cattle and wild ruminants were dying on both banks of the Zambesi River. Within two weeks most of the cattle around Salisbury were dead. The plague was diagnosed as rinderpest by Dick a graduate who was the telegraphist in Bulawayo. He wired the Colonial Veterinary Officer in Cape Colony who alerted states in southern Africa.
Chaos ensued ! At the end of March the disease entered the South African Republic and moved on remorselessly into Cape Colony and German Southwest Africa in 1897. All attempts to stop the plague by Proclamations, Days of Prayer, fences and slaughter of sick animals failed. Novel prophylactic measures were tried and were found to be wanting. The disease burnt itself out in 1905 but it lingered on in Equatorial Africa and flared up in Kenya in 1907.
In the late 1980s the Indian Government offered a " peace accord" to Sri Lanka whereby India undertook to station an Indian Peace Keeping Military Force ( IPKF ) in Sri Lanka to assist the Sri Lankan authorities subdue a Tamil Insurrection. The IPKF was provisioned from India and the supplies included live goats some of which were visibly sick. Shortly, thereafter, rinderpest was diagnosed in local cattle. It was not until 1999 that Sri Lanka could declare provisional freedom from rinderpest.
Ever since Professor B. Ramazzini [1633-1714] attempted to protect cattle from rinderpest in 1711 using infected setons, murrain investigators have developed new prophylactic methods. One was J. T. Edwards who in the 1920s fortuitously modified rinderpest virus by passaging it serially in goats. The line stabilized after 600 passages and proved to be attenuated for Indian cattle. Moreover, the virus immunized for life. THIS FINDING WAS THE BREAK-THROUGH IN THE BATTLE TO CONTROL RINDERPEST.
Freeze-drying gave a powdered
vaccine with a prolonged shelf-life. Caprinized vaccine was not ideal. In
animals with a low innate resistance it induced clinical signs and
occasionally killed when a latent infection was exacerbated. Even animals with a
high innate resistance shed tears; a sign welcomed by
In the past decade recombinant
rinderpest vaccines have been developed in Britain, Japan and the U.S.A., but
they have not been cleared for use. Their virtue is that the handling of
infectious rinderpest virus is totally avoided. Regular routine
vaccinations have been stopped in all countries, except where a focal pocket is
contained and eradicated by movement controls and mass vaccination.
Plowright’s vaccine is the one that is used because it protects within 3 days
through interference whereas recombinant vaccines need a 3 week advantage.
In the 1950s the strategy was mass vaccination in your own country to cut the incidence of the disease. For example, the All-India Vaccination Programme was launched in 1956 when the incidence was 60,002. In 1975 the incidence was to 2,824. An unexpected high incidence occurred in 1981 provoking an emergency meeting to assess progress. The strategy was changed, fresh funds were obtained, and vaccination was concentrated to high incidence States. Twelve years later India was declared provisionally free of rinderpest in 1995.
The Inter-African Bureau of Epizootic Diseases was founded in 1950 under the directorship of W. G. Beaton. He, from the beginning, planned to eradicate rinderpest from Africa. Heads of African Veterinary Services met in Kano in 1960 and welcomed Beaton’s proposals to launch a multinational joint project (JP 15) under the aegis of the Organization of African Unity. The aim was to vaccinate all cattle of all ages in each phase every year for three successive years. Thereafter, each country undertook to vaccinate all calves and weaners annually. At the start 17 countries had rinderpest and at the end only two reported the disease.
A hidden focus erupted on the Niger
River (Sudd) and spread east along the Sahel. Another focus flared up in
Sudan and spread west. Two million Fulani cattle sickened and half-a-million died in Nigeria. A dreadful sequel
was the high suicide rate among
Fulani headmen. The Sudan outbreak also invaded Uganda and was taken to
Tanzania in cattle acquired by returning soldiers. Tragically the virus
spread to wildlife.
FAO organized a meeting in 1987 to
discuss the feasibility of global rinderpest eradication. The sequel
was the establishment of GREP ( Global Rinderpest Eradication
backed by FAO, OIE, and IAEA because they believe the goal is achievable
in the foreseeable future.
Dunlop, R. H. & Williams, D. J. (1996) Veterinary Medicine. An Illustrated History. Mosby, New York.
Waterson, A. P. & Wilkinson, L. (1978) An Introduction to the History of Virology. Cambridge University Press.
Wilkinson, L. (1992) Animals and Disease. An Introduction to the History of Comparative Medicine. Cambridge University Press.
Rinderpest's closest human relative is the measles virus. They are negative single-stranded RNA viruses of the family Paramyxoviridae and genus Morbillivirus. In Island Epidemics (2000; Oxford Univ. Press) Cliff et al. classify measles as a "crowd disease" since, for the virus to persist, there must be a pool of non-immune susceptible individuals. In a small population, as on an oceanic island, immunity might be widespread and the virus would then be extinguished. Over several decades the entire island population would then become non-immune and hence highly vulnerable to the introduction of virus from an external source.]
AMS listing: Events in 19th Century Microbiology (Click Here)
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Third Report on the Cattle Plague 1866 (Click Here)
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Last edited 05 Mar 2002 by Donald Forsdyke