The disease originated in Asia, spreading westward toward Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean and eastward towards the Pacific Ocean. It was widespread in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cattle plague epidemics were associated with war campaigns. Giovanni Lancisi, the famous Italian physicist and physician to Pope Clement XI ordered the slaughter of all infected and exposed cattle. He also recommended inspection of meat and that animals be buried in lime. Those who disregarded these laws were heavily penalized and at times even awarded the death sentence. Attempts were made to inoculate the animals, but these were limited and not always successful, and failed to solve the problem.
England was hit by a massive outbreak in the early 1700s. Thomas Bates tried to emulate Lancisi’s control measures, but not as strictly, and his attempts were successful, eradicating the plague almost entirely in England. But the plague made a fierce comeback during the middle of the century, and Bates’ measures were not applied then, resulting in the death of half a million cattle.
A major outbreak was recorded in the 18th century in Africa, that killed more than 80% of cattle. The Industrial Revolution had a negative impact on the spread of rinderpest. The advent of steam automobiles meant that cattle could be transported across countries, which signaled a sharp rise in the spread of this virus. This led to the infamous cattle plague of 1865-1867 in Britain which was termed a national catastrophe. Mass slaughters were ordered due to lack of medical cures. Europe had to ban cattle exports for this reason.
Vaccination involves administering antibodies from the body of a recovered animal which stimulates an antibody response that protects the vaccinated animal. Until the early 1900s, methods developed by E. Semmer were used to inoculate animals against rinderpest. He found out that serum extracted from recovered animals can be used as an immunization. But it is J.T. Edwards who developed the attenuated vaccine and is credited with the breakthrough in the war against this fatal disease. He discovered that animals who were induced with the attenuated virus got a lifelong immunity from this virus. This led to rinderpest almost disappearing from Europe.
Dr. Walter Plowright, the British veterinary surgeon, formulated a vaccine that was both affordable and simple. In 1960, he developed the Tissue Culture Rinderpest Vaccine (TCRV), a single shot of which stimulated an immune response in cattle that could last a lifetime. For his efforts he was awarded the World Food Prize in 1999. But this vaccine was not widely used until late last century, and the disease returned with a vengeance in Africa around 1970-1980, wiping out millions of animals, including wildlife, and causing extensive financial loss. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) ordered mass vaccination of all cattle in countries from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa in 1994 with the use of TCRV. This global eradication program ensured that the disease was eradicated, with the exception of an outbreak in Kenya in 2001. This was the last major outbreak of rinderpest. In June 2011, the United Nations officially declared that rinderpest has successfully been eradicated.