Friday, October 15, 2010

Good News Day!

I picked up on this announcement yesterday which seems to have got little attention, but despite the rescue of the Chilean miners, this has to be the best news for many a day. Rinderpest, a virus that causes devastating cattle plague, has been wiped out, the first time such an announcement has been made since the end of smallpox more than 30 years ago. John Anderson, the head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, called the success "the biggest achievement of veterinary history". Rinderpest is the first animal virus to be contained and then eradicated in the wild.

Cattle plagues have recurred throughout history, often accompanying war. They hit Europe during the 18th century, with three long pandemics which took place in the periods of 1709–1720, 1742–1760, and 1768–1786. There was a major outbreak covering the whole of Britain in 1865/66. Later, an outbreak in the 1890s killed 80 to 90 percent of all cattle in Southern Africa. More recently, another rinderpest outbreak that raged across much of Africa in 1982–84 is estimated to have cost at least US$500 million in stock losses.

The rinderpest virus (RPV) is closely related to the measles and canine distemper viruses. Throughout the eighteenth century there were numerous attempts to control the disease by deliberate innoculation of the virus (a process akin to variolation in smallpox), but a true vaccine does not seem to have been developed until the South African, Sir Arnold Theiler, did so during the Boer War, 1899-1902. Theiler's son, Max received the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for developing an effective vaccine against yellow fever.

Walter Plowright, CMG, FRS, FRCVS was the British veterinary scientist whose work in Kenya led to the development of the Plowright tissue culture rinderpest vaccine, which eventually eliminated the disease worldwide. For this achievement, Plowright was named the 1999 World Food Prize Laureate. Unfortunately, Plowright died in February this year before the elimination was confirmed.

The Institute for Animal Health's (IAH) Pirbright laboratory in Surrey, where my brother spent his scientific career, developed a diagnostic kit that was used in the eradication program that began in 1994. I must ask Chris how much he knows about it, next time he phones.

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