For centuries, the rinderpest virus (whose name is derived from the German for "cattle plague") caused devastating epidemics among domestic cattle. This virus is a close relative of the measles virus that infects humans. The rinderpest and measles lineages are thought to have diverged less than a thousand years ago. Both the rinderpest and measles viruse are placed in the genus Morbillivirus, along with dolphin and porpoise morbillivirus, canine distemper virus, phocid distemper virus, and peste des petits ruminants virus. Genetically and antigenetically, however, the measles virus is most similar to rinderpest virus. (Furuse et al. 2010)
Rinderpest is highly infectious and over the years has killed many millions of cattle, water buffalo, and other hoofed mammals, including large antelopes, deer, pigs, warthogs, and even giraffes and wildebeests. It has caused extensive hunger and economic hardship for humans dependent on vulnerable species, primarily in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
In 2011, the elimination of rinderpest was formally declared after a decades-long global vaccination campaign, an accomplishment comparable to the eradication of human smallpox. The last known case of rinderpest was recorded in 2001. McNeil (2011) provides a rich review of the history of rinderpest in his New York Times article on the occasion of the announcement of its eradication. As with smallpox (which was deemed eradicated in 1980), although the rinderpest virus no longer circulates amongst live animals, it is still maintained in a number of laboratories.
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