Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rinderpest, Prepare to Die

Rinderpest virus, or "cattle plague" in German, may be seeing its last days on this planet. The disease, whose history bears many similarities to that of smallpox, is expected to be eradicated from cattle in the next year. Like smallpox, the virus causes fever, "oral erosions," and has an extremely high mortality rate (over 75%). Animals infected with the virus, which spreads through direct contact and contaminated water, die within six to twelve days after the onset of symptoms. Similar to human diseases, cattle in Europe faced a number of rinderpest pandemics in the 1700s. More recently an outbreak in Africa in the 1980s cost an estimated $500 million in lost livestock.

Inoculation practices, like variolation for smallpox, were initially developed in the late 1700s, though they were not widely implemented due to the large number of animals that died as a result of the procedure. In the 1960s, a vaccine was developed, but not until the 1990s, when a heat stable version was developed (sound familiar...?), did eradication become a possibility. In the last several months, Ethiopia, one of the last three countries with the virus, reported that it is outbreak free. In another parallel to the smallpox eradication, Ethiopian officials are struggling to determine how to verify that the virus has been fully eliminated before officially declaring it eradicated. When this occurs, rinderpest will only remain in two countries, Kenya and smallpox's last stronghold, Somalia. Like smallpox, however, eradication may not be the end of rinderpest. The cattle virus was researched as an agent for biological weapons during the United States' biological weapons program. Could there be a destruction of the final strains debate for rinderpest? Also what would D.A. Henderson say, now that another virus is on the brink of eradication? Finally, could Ethiopian officials adopt methods used in the smallpox eradication to verify that their country is free of the virus?

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