The second eradicated disease

Most people know that smallpox was the first disease that we have completely eradicated in the wild. But what was the second, and what does it have to do with Egyptian plagues, measles, and cattle?

Jan Smit (II) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rinderpest was a viral disease that mainly affected cattle and cattle-like animals (buffalo, deer, giraffes, etc.). I’ll spare you the gross symptoms, but it was especially deadly: animals died within two weeks, with nearly a hundred percent fatality rate.

Some people connect rinderpest to the biblical Fifth Plague of Egypt (“pestilence of livestock”); it is certain that the disease struck throughout the years right up until the 20th century. In the 1890s, for example, rinderpest killed 5.2 million cattle in Africa – which led to the starvation of one third of the human population of Ethiopia and two thirds of the Maasai.

Rinderpest had a wider reach though: measles is actually descended from rinderpest. Genetic studies suggest that measles emerged from rinderpest some time in the 11th or 12th century, although that may have been earlier in isolated cases.

For a good part of the 20th century the World Organization for Animal Health worked on eliminating the disease by vaccines. The last recorded case occurred in 2001, and in 2011 it was declared officially eradicated globally. 

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