Farmers have confronted the scourge of rinderpest, or cattle plague, ever since cattle were domesticated some 10,000 years ago. For centuries, humankind has depended on livestock for draft power, milk, meat, skins, and manure. Rinderpest—which in its severest form can kill 95 percent or more of the animals it infects—has had devastating effects, blighting the lives of farmers throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. It has been described as “the most dreaded bovine plague known, belonging to a select group of notorious infectious diseases that have changed the course of history.”
Rinderpest was detected and confirmed for the last time in 2001 in Kenya. Few veterinarians and even farmers alive today have seen the disease, and its existence is fading from memory. The eradication of rinderpest can be viewed as an achievement on par with the eradication of smallpox from the human population, the only other time an infectious disease has been eradicated. This remarkable feat was accomplished thanks to the efforts of scientists around the world to develop and perfect vaccines and—just as important—to international collaboration and coordination aimed at monitoring the disease and eliminating it wherever it lingered. Rinderpest eradication was the outcome neither of a single project nor the efforts of a single agency; rather, it was the result of a series of periodic, internationally coordinated efforts built on the ongoing national programs of many affected countries during the course of many decades.