It was an historical moment the world over, when Rinderpest—the dreaded animal disease also known as Cattle plague—was finally eradicated in 2011. This is a remarkable success story, being the first animal disease eradicated in human history and the second among all diseases inflicting humans and livestock, after smallpox. The 10,000-yr-old rinderpest virus (RPV) had been affecting cattle and other cloven-hoofed animals since the beginning of domestication. The history of the battle against rinderpest is almost 150 years old, and we won the battle at last.
This happens to be one glorious achievement coming out of the collective actions of people, organizations, institutions and countries across the world. The whole world got united to fight this disease under The Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations following a framework set out by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). It is termed as the “Biggest Achievement of the Veterinary History”. Jacques Diouf, the then FAO Director-General commented, “While we are celebrating one of the greatest successes for FAO and its partners, I wish to remind you that this extraordinary achievement would not have been possible without the joint efforts and strong commitments of governments, the main organizations in Africa, Asia and Europe, and without the continuous support of donors and international institutions”. This is true to the core; it was a collective action which made all the difference. The OIE terms it beautifully: The Odyssey of Rinderpest Eradication.
When I look back, I see enormous contributions including some path-breaking work done at the ICAR-Indian Veterinary Research Institute towards control and subsequent eradication of Rinderpest. Ever since this institute came into being in 1889, it has been working on Rinderpest, which was then the number one disease affecting livestock in India. The Government of British India took upon the task of investigation, research and manufacture of a serum for the protection of bovines against Rinderpest around early 1890 and subsequently the first serum was released for large-scale applications. Dr J T Edwards, the then Director of the institute, initiated preventive work on Rinderpest in India at Imperial Bacteriological Laboratory – now known as ICAR-Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) at Mukteswar in the pristine Hills of Kumaon. Dr Edwards developed the goat tissue adapted (caprinized) Rinderpest vaccine (GTV) for the active immunization against Rinderpest in 1927. He was the first person who discovered that vaccination with attenuated virus confers life-long immunity to Rinderpest. The GTV Vaccine developed at IVRI was the first vaccine for Rinderpest for the whole world. In the 1930s, the goat adapted Rinderpest vaccine (GTV) developed by J. T. Edwards at IVRI replaced the serum simultaneous method as the most preferred method of vaccination of cattle.
Before 1950s, about 100-200 thousand bovine deaths were reported every year due to Cattle Plague in India. The incidence of disease decreased to some extent (100-150 thousand) after development and application of Goat Tissue Vaccine (GTV) by IVRI during 1935 onwards. Subsequently, during 1954, a mass vaccination campaign against the Cattle Plague in the name of National Rinderpest Eradication Programme (NREP) using GTV vaccine was launched. Cattle and buffalo above 6 months of age were vaccinated using GTV vaccine. This was the first organized mass vaccination against Rinderpest. This activity continued covering a significant population during the period of a decade, which reduced the occurrence of Cattle Plague significantly. Subsequently, IVRI adopted the Tissue Culture Rinderpest Vaccine (TCRP) technology during 1960s and worked with other biological Institutions to help them to adopt this TCRP technology to produce vaccine in bulk since 1960s till 2000.
As discussed above, the first organized and nationwide Rinderpest Control Programme was launched in India during the year 1954 as NREP and it was followed up by a bigger programme- National Project for Rinderpest Eradication (NPRE) launched in 1992 with the initial funding by European Economic Community (EEC). This was a massive programme involving many agencies and veterinarians in large number from central and state departments including research and academic intuitions like IVRI and veterinary colleges. The IVRI played a key role in sero-monitoring and sero-surveillance at national level with the development of an FAO/OIE approved monoclonal antibody-based Rinderpest competitive-ELISA kit. IVRI also worked as a nodal agency for Rinderpest vaccine quality control at national level as also the National Reference Laboratory on Morbilliviruses, till the disease was finally eradicated. India has been free from clinical Rinderpest since June, 1995.
We – at this institute – continued to work against this disease till it was finally eradicated. Following OIE pathway for Rinderpest eradication, the country became free from Rinderpest in the year 2004. It was a glorious moment for the entire veterinary community in India, when in 2006, the OIE testified that India had indeed achieved freedom from Rinderpest on 25th May, 2006, making it one of the first countries in Asia to reach this landmark. In 2011, FAO declared the entire world completely free of Rinderpest. This remarkable success was celebrated the world over by all stakeholders and individuals, including IVRI. All of us who had contributed, witnessed Rinderpest eradication celebrations and the installation of a commemoration pillar at Mukteswar campus of IVRI on 2nd June, 2012. This pillar has important landmark achievements engraved on it, acknowledging the contributions of all national and international organizations including IVRI, ICAR, Department of Dairying, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries/GoI, World Organization of Animal Health/ OIE, Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of United Nations and European Union.
Rinderpest remains history, but it remains a challenge for all of us to ensure that it does not make a reappearance. For this to happen, the OIE has launched its rinderpest awareness campaign « Never turn back! », with the key word: Vigilance. We are committed and determined that Rinderpest never returns. The knowledge which is stored in the literature on Rinderpest diagnosis and vaccinology can be utilized in exigencies, to tackle similar diseases like Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR)/goat plague virus—the next potential challenge for us all globally.
Finally, I would again point out that, thanks to collective actions, we were able to achieve victory over this huge threat. Let us work more on collective actions to make this world hunger free. As we have learnt from wiping out Rinderpest, collective actions can make it happen!
Guest blog post by Raj Kumar Singh (rks_virology(at)rediffmail.com), Director, ICAR- Indian Veterinary Research Institute
The views expressed are personal, and cannot be attributed to ICAR or GFAR.
Photo credits: 1,4 – Charles Plummer (photo of plaques displayed at FAO Headquarters); 2,3 – Dr Raj Kumar Singh