Rinderpest: the puzzling story of a plague that is no longer a news story

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Last week, to surprisingly little coverage, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) officially announced that rinderpest had become the first animal disease, and only the second disease overall, to be officially been eradicated from the face of the earth. I’m ashamed to say the news passed me by, but I bet it did you too. As Professor Chris Whitty noted in a lecture last Friday in Cambridge  in a talk entitled “Science in the service of the developing world” when the media is dominated (in the UK at least) by footballers’ kiss and tell stories, perhaps that’s not overly surprising.

Perhaps one should take the charitable view and say that as a society we have become inured to scientific breakthroughs. But that too is a problem; the constant hyping of scientific “breakthrough ” stories not only distorts the public perception of science, and undermines its fundamental attribute of being a collaborative effort which advances incrementally, but may also undermine public trust in science when it cannot solve what may seem superficially to be a simple problem – the common cold for example – which is in fact a complex problem.

In its time, though, Rinderpest was a huge news story. Caused by a virus related to (possibly an ancestor of ) measles, according to the FAO this animal disease has changed the course of history: “Rinderpest epidemics and resulting losses preceded the fall of the Roman empire, the conquest of Christian Europe by Charlemagne, the French Revolution and the impoverishment of Russia”. Death rates during outbreaks of Rinderpest approached 100%, and for example when it was introduced into sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the 19th century it killed off 80 to 90 percent of all cattle in the region.

Perhaps what makes this story so un-newsworthy is that it was not an overnight breakthrough but was in fact the result of exactly the type of collaborative effort with incremental advances over many years that Chris Whitty would have us recognise.

But whatever the route, we should celebrate and mark this disease passing into history.

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