Education, Epidemiology, Infectious Diseases, Vaccines, Viruses

Rinderpest: The Second Disease to Be Eradicated in the World

Author Chandana Balasubramanian , 08-Aug-2023

Rinderpest, also known as the “cattle plague,” is related to countless deaths since the Roman era, leading to agricultural losses, famine, and disease. The disease is caused by the rinderpest virus (RPV), a negative-strand RNA virus belonging to the Morbillivirus genus in the Paramyxoviridae family.


Rinderpest is the first animal disease to be eradicated. However, during its time, it was highly contagious and caused severe economic disruptions. Some cloven-hoofed herds even experienced a 100% death rate due to the rinderpest virus.


The devastating effect of this disease led to the establishment of the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH). By collaborating with international partners, the agency actively paved the way for the complete eradication of the disease, with the last reported case occurring in 2001. Rinderpest became the second disease to be eradicated.



According to WOAH, Rinderpest is believed to have originated in Central Asia and quickly spread across the continent and into Europe, facilitated by trade and migration routes. Although reports of the disease also surfaced in the Americas and Australia, its prevalence was comparatively lower.

The rapid spread of this highly contagious disease led to devastating famines in Africa and hindered agricultural progress in Asia. Households that relied on livestock for sustenance and livelihood bore the heaviest burden.

Recognizing its impact on livestock, scientists and veterinarians began exploring methods to combat rinderpest. In 1744, significant strides were made in the fight against rinderpest as vaccination efforts were initiated in both the Netherlands and England.

In the late 19th century, a devastating rinderpest outbreak in Ethiopia, known as the “Great Ethiopian Famine“, resulted in a widespread catastrophe. The death rate among livestock was alarming – approximately 90% of the country’s plow oxen population perished quickly. This shook the local economies and led to severe food shortages and famine conditions for humans dependent on these animals for sustenance.

The rinderpest outbreak in Belgium in 1920 renewed global determination to tackle this urgent issue, resulting in collaborative actions worldwide. However, it was only in the 1990s that a concerted global effort was made to eradicate the disease. This effort involved mass vaccination campaigns, strict quarantine measures, and the development of diagnostic tests to detect the virus.

In 2011, the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) made a historic announcement during its 79th General Session – rinderpest had been eradicated worldwide. This made rinderpest the second disease to be eradicated, after smallpox.

The eradication of rinderpest was a significant milestone for global veterinary science and public health. It proved that with concerted efforts, it is possible to eliminate diseases threatening livestock populations.

This victory provided hope and set a precedent for future endeavors to control and eradicate similar disorders.



Between 1887 and 1892, Ethiopia experienced a devastating rinderpest outbreak, commonly called the “Great Ethiopian Famine.” This outbreak caused a catastrophic impact, leading to a high mortality rate among livestock.

Approximately 90% of the country’s plow oxen, crucial for agricultural activities and sustenance, perished rapidly. Consequently, local economies were severely affected, resulting in acute food shortages and famine conditions for the human population heavily reliant on these animals for survival.

World War II led to a significant resurgence of rinderpest throughout East and Southeast Asia. Similarly, the civil disturbance caused by the Gulf War in the early 1990s significantly increased rinderpest infections in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

The disease was also spread through organized cattle trade, primarily from Russia. This trade repeatedly introduced rinderpest into recipient countries in Europe and other regions during the 17th to 19th centuries. Consequently, between 1857 and 1866, Europe suffered a severe depletion of cattle due to rinderpest.

East Africa witnessed two significant events in the recent history of rinderpest outbreaks. The first outbreak occurred in Tanzania in 1982, causing adverse effects on the region’s wild animal populations. Additionally, an outbreak was reported in Kenya between 1960 and 1962.

However, a more recent epidemic occurred in Kenya, which was closely monitored from April 1994 to May 1997.

During the early 1990s, epidemiological studies conducted in Ethiopia shed light on the persistence of rinderpest in specific parts of eastern Africa’s pastoral ecosystems. Findings revealed that despite annual mass vaccination campaigns, these efforts reached less than one-third of the estimated 35 million cattle in the region.

Another critical event that marked the final phase of eradication was a severe epidemic from 1993 to 1996, primarily originating from the coastal lowlands of eastern Kenya. This outbreak devastated wildlife, particularly African buffaloes, kudus, elands, and giraffes. Aerial census data indicated a staggering 60% mortality rate in buffalo populations, with some kudu populations experiencing mortality rates as high as 90%.

The last recorded case was documented in Kenya in 2001.


How is it spread?

There is no evidence of vertical transmission (from parent to offspring) of RPV. It can spread through:

  • Direct or indirect contact between infected and susceptible animals.
  • Contaminated air – not very common and requires specific circumstances and short distances.
  • Fomites (inanimate objects carrying the virus)  – not very common.


Biology of the disease

After entering the body through inhalation or direct contact, the rinderpest virus starts multiplying in certain types of immune cells found in the tonsils and the lymph nodes in the jaw and throat. Within 2-3 days, the virus spreads throughout the body by hitching a ride with these immune cells, reaching various lymphoid tissues. It also infects the lining of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts.

The virus attaches to the bovine CD150 (SLAM) receptor, present on specific immune cells like immature thymocytes, activated lymphocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells. Additionally, it infects and multiplies in endothelial cells (cells lining blood vessels) and some types of epithelial cells (cells covering surfaces).

This causes damage and inflammation in different mucous membranes, resulting in areas of tissue death in various locations.



Rinderpest is a highly contagious viral infection that affects cattle, buffalo, and other cloven-hoofed animals. RSV has an incubation period of 3-15 days before symptoms manifest.

Classic symptoms in cattle include:

  • Fever
  • Erosive lesions in the mouth
  • Discharge from the nose and eyes
  • Profuse diarrhea and dehydration
  • Death often occurs within 10 to 15 days.


Other species may exhibit milder clinical signs. Typical clinical signs can be summarized as the “famous 4Ds”:

  • Depression
  • Discharges
  • Diarrhea
  • Death


Fever and mouth lesions are also common symptoms.



Rinderpest Virus (RPV)

Rinderpest could be easily confused with other diseases that cause similar symptoms, such as bovine viral diarrhea, malignant catarrhal fever, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, and foot-and-mouth disease.

In countries where rinderpest used to be common, diagnosis was often based on clinical signs and symptoms. Here are a few:

  • Specific PCR tests have been developed to distinguish rinderpest from these similar diseases, resolving diagnostic challenges.
  • Quantitative (real-time) RT-PCR assays are now available for the rinderpest virus, enabling rapid differentiation from the closely related peste des petits ruminants virus.
  • Virus Neutralization Tests and ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) have been utilized to assess the prevalence of rinderpest virus infection in specific regions.



There was no specific cure for Rinderpest.

While treatments for symptoms like diarrhea and supportive care with antibiotics and fluids might have helped individual animals, they were not commonly used in practice.

Ultimately, prevention by eradicating the virus proved to be the most effective.



Early rinderpest vaccines were produced using various methods like virus passage in rabbits, embryonated eggs, or goats. In the 1960s, a live-attenuated vaccine produced in cell culture (the Plowright vaccine) was developed and played a crucial role in eliminating the disease.

Initially, the Plowright vaccine was thermolabile (deactivated by heat) and required strict temperature control during transport (cold chain maintenance). A thermostable version of the Plowright vaccine was developed in the 1990s and extensively used for global rinderpest eradication.

As of April 2007, no reports of rinderpest virus infection were made by any country to the WOAH, including all of Asia and Africa. In May 2011, the virus was declared eradicated globally by the OIE.

The following preventive measures were part of the eradication efforts:

  • Veterinary public health measures were implemented to prevent the introduction of the virus into virus-free areas.
  • Import of uncooked meat and meat products from infected countries was prohibited.
  • Zoo animals were quarantined before being transported to virus-free countries.
  • Live-attenuated virus vaccines were used in countries with enzootic rinderpest or high risk of introduction.
  • As the number of infected animals decreased, vaccination was stopped to facilitate serological surveillance, as vaccine-induced immunity resembled natural infection. Marker vaccines were developed but not widely used.


Rinderpest eradication: GRAP - Global Rinderpest Action Plan

GRAP – Global Rinderpest Action Plan is a comprehensive strategy developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to ensure ongoing global freedom from rinderpest and to address the risk of its re-emergence. The GRAP outlines specific actions and phases to prepare for, prevent, detect, respond to, and recover from a potential outbreak of rinderpest.

The GRAP model encompasses five main phases:

  • Preparation: This phase involves building the necessary capacities, infrastructure, and resources to respond effectively to a potential re-emergence of rinderpest. It includes establishing emergency response plans, enhancing surveillance systems, and strengthening diagnostic capabilities.
  • Prevention: The prevention phase focuses on implementing measures to minimize the risk of reintroducing rinderpest. It involves strict biosecurity protocols, control of animal movements, and raising awareness among stakeholders about preventing the disease’s reintroduction.
  • Detection: The detection phase emphasizes surveillance and early warning systems to detect any signs of rinderpest promptly. It involves monitoring livestock populations, establishing rapid diagnostic capabilities, and facilitating reporting and information sharing among countries.
  • Response: In the event of a confirmed rinderpest case, the response phase involves a coordinated and immediate emergency response. It includes deploying expert teams, implementing containment measures, conducting disease control operations, and initiating vaccination campaigns to control and eradicate the disease.
  • Recovery: The recovery phase focuses on restoring global freedom from rinderpest after an outbreak. It entails comprehensive post-outbreak assessments, decontamination of affected areas and facilities, restoration of livestock populations, and support for affected livelihoods.


FAQs about Rinderpest

What is rinderpest, and why was it a big deal?

Rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, was a highly contagious viral disease that caused massive death tolls among livestock, particularly in developing countries, before being eradicated globally in 2011 through international efforts led by organizations like FAO and WOAH.

What caused the rinderpest epidemic?

The Rinderpest epidemic was caused by the Rinderpest virus (RPV). The virus primarily affected cloven-hoofed animals, such as cattle and buffalo, and spread rapidly among susceptible populations. The highly contagious nature of the virus played a significant role in the widespread outbreaks and resulted in devastating consequences.

What are some interesting facts about rinderpest?

Rinderpest originated in Asia and spread to Africa and Europe through trade routes, and it primarily affected cloven-hoofed animals like cows, buffalos, and goats. The World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) declared it eradicated globally in 2011, marking the first time an animal disease has been eradicated by human efforts.

What are some common misconceptions about rinderpest?

Additionally, some may think that rinderpest only affected cattle, but it also affected other cloven-hoofed animals like buffalos cows, goats, and deer.

What can we learn from the eradication of rinderpest?

The successful eradication of rinderpest through international cooperation and vaccination efforts is a model for future disease eradication efforts and highlights the importance of investing in global health initiatives.



Rinderpest had a long and devastating history, causing immense agricultural losses, famines, and economic disruptions worldwide. However, thanks to global collaborative efforts and the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) establishment, rinderpest became the first animal disease to be eradicated.

The Global Rinderpest Action Plan (GRAP) played a crucial role in this achievement, outlining comprehensive strategies to prepare for, prevent, detect, respond to, and recover from a potential outbreak.

Through vaccination campaigns, strict quarantine measures, and international cooperation, the last reported case of rinderpest occurred in 2001, paving the way for a significant milestone in global veterinary science and public health.

The eradication of rinderpest demonstrates the power of concerted efforts. It provides hope for future endeavors to control and eliminate other devastating diseases threatening livestock populations.


The GIDEON difference

GIDEON is one of the most well-known and comprehensive global databases for infectious diseases. Data is refreshed daily, and the GIDEON API allows medical professionals and researchers access to a continuous stream of data.

Whether your research involves quantifying data, learning about specific microbes, or testing out differential diagnosis tools– GIDEON has you covered with a program that has met standards for accessibility excellence.

You can also review our eBooks on other Paramyxoviridae viruses like measlesmumps, and more. Or check out our global status updates on countries like Guinea BissauLiechtensteinMauritius, and New Caledonia.

Chandana Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network, and has a Masters degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

Articles you won’t delete.
Delivered to your inbox weekly.