Rounding Up The Last Of A Deadly Cattle Virus | KERA News

Rounding Up The Last Of A Deadly Cattle Virus

Nov 12, 2015
Originally published on November 30, 2015 1:58 pm

There are only two diseases that humans have wiped from the face of the earth. One is smallpox. The other one, you may not have heard of.

It's a cattle disease called rinderpest. Even the name sounds scary. It's German for "cattle plague." It was once one of the most fearsome diseases on the planet.

In Europe, centuries ago, "it was feared as much as the Black Death," says Keith Hamilton, executive director of international programs at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. That's because when cattle herds died, people lost meat, milk and the animal power they needed to plow their fields.

In the 1950s, science delivered an answer: an effective vaccine. International animal health authorities started "a massive, coordinated effort to try and eradicate rinderpest," Hamilton says.

It succeeded. The last known case of rinderpest occurred in Kenya in 2001. Scientists declared the disease eradicated in 2011.

But the virus lives on, kept by at least 27 scientific institutes that studied the disease or made the vaccine. That's according to a survey carried out by the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, which is based in Paris. Hamilton, who worked at OIE until recently, and several of his former colleagues are publishing their results in the December issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The OIE says the virus is stored in too many places. And there's a risk that someone could accidentally release it, or even do so on purpose.

The organization is trying to persuade the research centers to destroy those samples. Hamilton says it's in their own self-interest to do so. "It's a huge responsibility," he says. "Because if the virus did escape, the consequences of an outbreak would be massive, and it would be a huge embarrassment to that facility."

The OIE and the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization have named five research centers as authorized locations to store the virus. One is in the U.S., at the government's Animal Disease Center on Plum Island, just off the eastern tip of Long Island in New York.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There are two diseases humans have wiped from the face of the Earth. One is small pox. The other you may not have heard of. It's a cattle disease declared eradicated four years ago. But many scientific institutes still keep samples of the virus in storage. Now a group of animal health experts is calling for most of those samples to be destroyed. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Rinderpest - even the name sounds scary.

KEITH HAMILTON: It's a German name, and it means cattle plague.

CHARLES: This is Keith Hamilton, a veterinarian formerly at the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris now working at the Veterinary School at Kansas State University. Some of the most devastating rinderpest outbreaks, he says, happened in Europe centuries ago.

HAMILTON: And in fact, it was feared as much as the Black Death.

CHARLES: Because when cattle herds died, people lost meat, milk and the animal power they needed to plow their fields. In the 1950s, science delivered an answer - an effective vaccine.

HAMILTON: There was a massive kind of coordinated effort to try and eradicate rinderpest.

CHARLES: And it succeeded. Scientists are now confident that the virus no longer survives in the wild. But it does survive at scientific institutes that study the disease or made the vaccine - 27 of them according to a new article that Hamilton and several colleagues wrote for the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The World Organization for Animal Health says that's too many because there's always a risk that someone could accidentally release the virus or even do it on purpose. The organization is now trying to persuade those research centers to destroy the samples.

HAMILTON: It's a huge responsibility because if the virus did escape, the consequences of an outbreak would be massive now, and it would be a huge embarrassment to that facility.

CHARLES: The Organization for Animal Health has named five research centers as authorized locations to store the virus. One is in the United States at the U.S. government's Animal Disease Center on Plum Island just off the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.