Rinderpest: the plague that wreaked devastation on farmers

The isolation and slaughter of cattle are still routine responses to outbreaks

If you don't know what anniversary we are celebrating next year then you have surely been hiding under a rock. However, another anniversary has gone virtually unnoticed. It is 160 years this year since the start of a devastating epidemic of cattle plague, or rinderpest.

Arguably the worst epidemic of livestock during the 19th century, the disease was particularly acute in England where it led to the death or slaughter of more than 250,000 animals and an estimated loss to the economy of over £5 million. Cattle plague was also the second disease to be eradicated by vaccination (the first was smallpox).

Next year will mark the fifth anniversary of the declaration by the World Organisation for Animal Health that the world is free of rinderpest.

Graphic images of slaughtered livestock and stricken farmers are familiar to us from several recent epidemics such as foot-and-mouth disease and BSE. In the 19th century, markets were closed and animals were slaughtered to try to stop the spread of disease. Unlike today, animals at some stages of disease were permissible for sale as food. This, alongside compensation, was an effort to encourage farmers to comply with regulations.


What is perhaps most shocking about these crude methods of disease control is that they remain virtually unaltered up to the present. Quarantine and slaughter are still routine responses.

Rinderpest arrived in Europe in waves throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and may have occurred as far back as the medieval period. Plagues of cattle have been recorded in the Irish Annals and the virus itself is thought to be thousands of years old. It has had an important role in human disease, too: scientists believe that measles may have evolved from a cattle disease similar to rinderpest.

When rinderpest appeared in 1865, it had not visited Britain in decades, although it had appeared on the European continent and may have had a reservoir in the Eurasian steppes. Prescient veterinarians such as John Gamgee had been warning of eminent disease outbreaks.

Gamgee believed many animal diseases were contagious and warned that as British demand for meat drove increased cattle imports, these imports would also bring disease. This is precisely what happened: cattle plague appeared in continental Europe and when no measures were put in place to stop imports, the disease soon spread to England. It appeared first in a dairy in Islington but rapidly spread as far as Scotland. The Irish Sea and an economy devoted to cattle export meant that Ireland remained almost unscathed bar a few isolated outbreaks.

Control measures

By the end of the 19th century, rinderpest was no longer the chief concern of cattle farmers in Britain and Ireland. Crude though they were, the control measures seemed to work. The rise of a dead meat trade, rather than one in live animals, also probably helped to stop the spread of disease. The scheme to eradicate the disease arose out of dire need in Africa, rather than Europe.

Possibly introduced with European cattle during the late 19th century, the disease spread rapidly in Africa, causing economic devastation and finding reservoirs in wild ungulates. A vaccine was developed in the 1920s by a relatively standard method of passing the virus through animals to create an attenuated virus that induced immunity.

Walter Plowright created an improved vaccine in the 1960s. A push to vaccinate continued, but the disease persisted and in fact spread further in the 1980s.

Without an improved understanding of the disease and its hosts, it seems unlikely that the vaccination campaign would have ever succeeded. Like mass slaughter, mass vaccination was a blunt instrument that was expensive and difficult to administer on a wide scale across a vast continent.

Instead, scientists learned to go after reservoirs of disease by tracking outbreaks. They moved away from centralised control towards local efforts and by 2005 were confident of eradication.

Unfortunately, as the case of smallpox has demonstrated, disease-eradication is often a singular triumph with no repetition on the horizon. We may be stuck with isolate and slaughter for a host of other epizootic infections far into the future.

Juliana Adelman lectures in history at St Patrick’s College Drumcondra