145 – RIP rinderpest

Posted on August 2, 2012 by

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On 8 August 2011, the United Nations held a ceremony declaring the disease eradicated, making rinderpest only the second disease in history to be fully wiped out, following smallpox[1]. This giant step forward for mankind escaped my attention (I just got the news today[2]). From news commentary I suspect quite few realize the import of this momentous achievement.

The virus of rinderpest was endemic in cattle and related species, including many wild ungulates. With livestock domestication rinderpest jumped to humans – molecular studies indicate measles as its close relative. Densification of human populations and domesticated herds proved perfect breeding grounds for the viruses: epidemics and even pandemics ensued.

Rinderpest is thought to have been one of the biblical plagues of Egypt. Europe was ravaged in the XVIIIth century by rinderpest epidemics. When Italian forces attacked Ethiopia at the end of the XIXth century, they probably imported infected livestock from the Middle East. A pandemic ensued: it swept much of southern Africa killing 80-90% of cattle as well as much ungulate wildlife. As Italy lost at Aduwa in 1896 the whole of Africa unknowingly bore the price.

In much of Africa rainfall may vary locally from year to year. Insects prevent storage of grains as insurance against drought. A highly complex regional trading system developed. Surplus grain areas bought cattle from drought-stricken areas; in the ensuing years the process was reversed. Cattle were the “saving bank” of these traditional societies. Rinderpest wiped out the “African banking system” as well as the wildlife which could have provided relief. Needless to say, colonial veterinarians failed to see this function of livestock and bemoaned this “wasteful” accumulation of livestock which led to overgrazing.

As hoard of wealth cattle also had social functions: bride-price was paid in heads of cattle. Rinderpest therefore destroyed the social fabric of an indigenous society by altering “bride-prices” and much more (just imagine is an epidemic swept away our banking system – though bankers are trying that to bestow just that on us). Without falling into crude “functionalism” more could be said about the core role of cattle in African societies, and about the disruptive effect of rinderpest.

If civilization can be said to have emerged from domestication processes, close contact with animals (birds, pigs, cattle and dogs) also brought infectious diseases – and long-distance war (horse). Globalization brought human communities without acquired immunity into sudden contact with such diseases, leading to societal collapse[3]. Belatedly, we are “repairing” the collateral harm of the domestication process.

I first came across the economic and societal role of rinderpest when doing land use research in Eastern Africa long time ago. It vaccinated me against “expert and specialist” hubris of the day, namely that there were easy technical fixes to development problems. I quit the subject area to spare others my ignorance.

I may have been wrong – now rinderpest is gone, and so are other dismal diseases of Africa (like the Guinea worm[4]). As one acknowledges the success, one is reminded of the (unsourced) quote attributed to William of Orange: “Exert yourself to the utmost, however hopeless the situation, and persevere even when all attempts have been unsuccessful.” Simply – one never knows whether there is a silver lining at the end of cumulative efforts.


[3]           See: Jared DIAMOND (2004): Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, New York.