The Murrain Now Known As Rinderpest

Newsletter of the Tropical Agriculture Association, U.K., 20 (4) 14-16 (2000) 

with the permission of the editor and the author 

Gordon R. Scott
University of Edinburgh












Rinderpest by Andreas Depping. Nature 422, page 403 (2001).

The Beginning

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.
Then the EnlightenmentGiovanni Maria Lancisi (1654-1720), personal physician to successive popes. Author of Dissertatione historicae de bovilla pesta. Published 1715 in Rome by J. M. Salvoni. Engraving by Marcutti after Cleter.

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.
The pandemic hit England in 1714 in cattle shipped from the Netherlands. Thomas Bates surgeon to King George I, was commanded by the Lord Justices to ascertain the plague's nature and to effect its control. Bates, having been stationed as a naval surgeon in Sicily, was familiar with Lancisi's edicts. He applied them without the draconian penalties, introducing instead a policy of indemnities. Bates's campaign eradicated the disease within three months to the astonishment of continental countries where the ravages continued unabated.

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.
Veterinary Schools Founded

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. 

 Steam Power

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.
The epidemic led to the establishment of a State Veterinary Service in 1865, albeit 200 hundred years behind mainland Europe. The Veterinary Service was tested twice in the 1870s when infected cattle were shipped from Hamburg. Both outbreaks were contained within weeks. Since then the British Isles have been free of rinderpest.
Imperial Ambitions

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.
The pandemic that changed the fauna of Africa entered the continent in 1887 at Massawa with Indian cattle for the Italian army. The cattle were infected and the disease swept from the Horn of Africa west to the Atlantic and south to the Cape of Good Hope. The Ethiopians lost 95% of their cattle and most of the human population starved to death. F. D. Lugard witnessed its passage through Maasailand in 1890 and he stressed that no similar animal epidemic had visited Africa within human memory. In London he pleaded for a veterinarian to be sent to East Africa to report on the nature of the plague and its remedies.

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.

Vaccine Development

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 pastoralists.
As the fear of rinderpest declined the demand for a safer attenuated vaccine arose. The problem was solved when W. Plowright and R. D. Ferris grew the virus in cultures of calf kidney cells. By the 90th serial passage the virus was stable, attenuated, and non-infectious. The vaccine was cheap to produce and easy to assay for potency and safety. It quickly became the vaccine of choice. Recently J. Mariner increased the shelf-life to 30 days at 300C by adapting it to Vero cells.

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.

Control Strategies

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.
The pandemic was so widespread and virulent that Heads of State pressed O.A.U. to organise a fresh campaign. The Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign began operations in 1987 in 34 African countries. In the 1990s most Equatorial countries were declared provisionally free. Small foci persisted in war-torn Sudan and Somalia. The latter focus spilled over into Kenya and Tanzania causing havoc in wildlife, but not in cattle. The virus was recovered from a single bovine gum erosion and proved to be an old African strain virulent for wildlife but non-fatal for cattle. A FAO Empress Project vaccinated all cattle in northern Tanzania and re-vaccinated them three months later. Surveillance checks confirmed that the disease was eradicated.
Global Eradication

FAO organized a meeting in 1987 to discuss the feasibility of global rinderpest eradication. The sequel was the establishment of GREP ( Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme) backed by FAO, OIE, and IAEA because they believe the goal is achievable in the foreseeable future.
G.R.S. 30/11/99 Click Here


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.

 End note on Biology

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.]

 End Note (October 2010)

The last case was seen in Kenya in 2001. In October 2010, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization announced that it was dropping its field surveillance efforts because it felt that eradication had been achieved. The New York Times (Oct 16th) pointed out:

"Still to be decided is how much virus to keep frozen in various countries' laboratories, along with tissue from infected animals and stocks of vaccine, which is made from live virus. Virologists like to have samples handy for research, but public health experts, fearing laboratory accidents or acts of terrorism, usually press to destroy as much as possible. The smallpox virus is officially supposed to exist only in two lab freezers, one in Atlanta and one in Moscow."

AMS listing: Events in 19th Century Microbiology (Click Here)

Rinderpest Page (Click Here)

Third Report on the Cattle Plague 1866 (Click Here)

Third Report, Appendix (Click Here)

AIDS Page (Click Here)

Strategy Page (Click Here)

Return to HomePage (Click Here)

Last edited 11 Nov 2020 by Donald Forsdyke