Throughout history, rinderpest regularly devastated buffalo and cattle herds in Asia and Europe and occasionally caused havoc in North Africa. Animals in sub-Saharan Africa were hit severely, perhaps for the first time, when rinderpest was unwittingly introduced into the Horn of Africa in 1887. The resulting panzootic swept north to the Mediterranean, west to the Atlantic and south to the Cape of Good Hope, permanently changing the flora and fauna of the continent. It burnt itself out in southern Africa in the early 1900s, but lingered on in northern equatorial Africa until the late 1990s.
Recovery from an attack of rinderpest has long been known to confer lifelong immunity to the disease, but only a few animals are known to survive.
Early attempts to immunize cattle artificially were unpredictable and often disastrous. In the pre-Jennerian manner used to protect humans against smallpox, cloth setons soaked in "matter" from a sick animal were inserted into the animal's skin.
The discovery in Russia in the late nineteenth century of the protective powers of serum drawn from a recovered animal (Semmer, 1893), led shortly thereafter to the development in South Africa of the serum-virus simultaneous immunization method (Kolle and Turner, 1897). The method was common for nearly 35 years. As the source of the virus for immunization was the blood of an infected ox, the risk of inadvertently injecting other bovine pathogens was high.
J.T. Edwards attempted to obviate the risk by passaging the virus serially in goats and, in the process, fortuitously developed an attenuated goat-adapted virus that could be injected alone into cattle without serum (Edwards, 1928).
This vaccine, together with the development of freeze-drying techniques in the late 1930s, revolutionized the control of rinderpest. Mass national and continental campaigns followed. Prior to 2001, the global prevalence of rinderpest reached its lowest level in 1976, when its presence was reported from only three countries. Complacency and diversion of veterinary activities or funds created an environment where rinderpest returned with a vengance in Africa, South Asia and the Near East.
It took decades of multi-national eradication campaigns and the renewed efforts of national veterinary services and livestock owners to curb the resurgence of rinderpest, and finally, to make the global eradication of the disease a reality in 2011.