Regular readers of ProMED-Mail, the information bulletins provided around the clock since 1994 by the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, may have noticed how often the first warnings of outbreaks in Europe come from the Netherlands––along with the first recommendations for control measures, and often the first introductions of new vaccines.
This is no mere coincidence. Raising millions of animals per year in close confinement for decades longer than most other nations, The Netherlands has correspondingly had much more experience than almost anywhere else with how contagious diseases spread among large herds and flocks in close quarters.
But even before the post-World War II introduction of factory farming to The Netherlands, Dutch researchers led the world in trying to eradicate contagious livestock disease through vaccination. Their successes may have contributed to encouraging farmers to keep livestock at densities never before attempted.
Catholicism vs. rinderpest
Dutch livestock vaccination experiments began almost as soon as the vaccination principle was articulated by various theorists in the early 18th century––and only a generation after the Catholic church formally introduced the practice of mass culling in response to livestock disease outbreaks that prevails globally today.
Initially applied to the livestock disease rinderpest, now globally extinguished, the Catholic policy had the effect that for nearly two centuries rinderpest most often afflicted non-Catholic nations.
Reactive massacres of animals who were either diseased or suspected to be diseased had long been practiced, for example the cat purges that swept Europe in response to the Black Death during the Middle Ages.
Before the 18th century, however, such massacres were indiscriminate panic responses, often targeting species not directly involved in transmitting the pathogen, as in the case of cats, and not supported by scientific understanding about how disease spreads.
Bernardini Ramazzini of Padua (1633-1714) deduced the foundations of germ theory in combatting malaria.
Influenced by Ramazzini, Giovanni Maria Lancisi, personal physician to Pope Clement XI, in 1713 recommended in response to rinderpest outbreaks which had ravaged European cattle since 1709, and had hit the Papal herd, that all infected and exposed animals should be immediately slaughtered.
The Pope ordered Catholic priests to preach that all herds with any sick members must be killed and buried in lime, while healthy herds were to be kept isolated. Non-clergy who failed to comply were to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Priests who disobeyed were to be made galley slaves for the rest of their lives. The outbreak in Catholic territories ended within nine months, according to a historical summary by Donald G. McNeil of the New York Times, but rinderpest raged on in Protestant regions for another seven years.
Introduction of vaccination
Rinderpest recurred throughout Europe in 1742-1760. The world’s first academic veterinary program, founded at the University of Lyon, in France, was initiated to conduct research that soon established the efficacy of mass culling as a rinderpest control measure.
But researchers in Protestant Europe believed there had to be a better way. British farmer and scientist Sir William St. Quintin introduced anti-rinderpest vaccination in 1754. Dutch farmer/scientists emulated St. Quintin within a year, but failed to prevent another major outbreak in 1768-1786, in part because the early vaccines were often as likely to transmit diseases as to stop them.
Experiments with vaccinating humans against smallpox began even before St. Quintin sought to vaccinate cattle against rinderpest, but Edward Jenner would not develop the first successful anti-smallpox vaccine until 1796.
The human disease measles mean-while evolved out of rinderpest and became a deadly scourge in itself.
Dutch scientists Pieter Camper, Geert Reinders, and Wijnold Munniks responded with intensive efforts to improve vaccines against rinderpest, measles, and other diseases transmitted by morbiliviruses. Reinders between 1777 and 1781 claimed a survival rate among vaccinated cattle of 89%, compared to a survival rate among non-vaccinated cattle who were exposed to rinderpest of only 29%.
Vaccination finally finished rinderpest
Despite the early Dutch successes, vaccination against rinderpest did not catch on until after the disease killed as many as a million hooved animals per year in the Orthodox nations of central Europe, and in Asia and Africa during the mid-19th century. The livestock losses contributed to the famine deaths of millions of humans, including a third of the human population of Ethiopia during the 1880s.
The initial goal of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), formed in 1924 by the League of Nations, was to eradicate rinderpest through vaccination, but the campaign did not gain momentum until the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization was formed in 1945, after World War II.
British military veterinarian Walter Plowright, sent to Kenya in 1944, worked from 1956 to his retirement in 1981 to perfect the vaccines that finally finished rinderpest. The last outbreak occurred in Kenya in 2001, nine years before the OIE pronounced rinderpest to be extinct, after extensive monitoring to make sure it would not recur. The announcement came two months after Plowright’s death.
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