July 1, 2011
One of the greatest scourges of human history is no more. For only the second time, modern public health practices have managed to eradicate a pandemic illness of global reach. The first was smallpox. Now what? AIDS? TB? No. Today, the world’s cattle are safe from rinderpest.
If you’ve never heard of rinderpest, it’s likely because you live in America, where thanks to the quarantine of distance and history the disease never established itself. But in the old world, cattle have kept company with humans for some 8,000 years, often in settings of extraordinary intimacy. Farm families throughout Europe lived in crofts, homes that doubled as stables; pastorlists like the Nuer people of Sudan, who drink not only cows’ milk but their blood as well, rely on cattle to supply nearly all their needs.
Through the many generations of coexistence, humans and their domesticated herds have shared their illnesses; smallpox, the only other disease eradicated by modern public health practices, likely began among cattle (the first smallpox vaccines were made by scraping matter from lesions on cows). In rinderpest, we humans returned the favor–scientists now think that the disease, a relative of measles, evolved from the human pathogen as recently as a thousand years ago.