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Story of the Year Goes Largely Unnoticed

Newsrooms everywhere are compiling their year-end lists. People of the year, movie of the year, gaffe of the year, all that sort of thing.

Here's my offering for story of the year, 2011. But it's hardly been noticed at all in western media -- and least of all in American news outlets.

And it's actually a good news story. 2011 saw final defeat, after millenia of struggle, for a dreaded disease. While it most immediately attacks animals, this disease has in its time inflicted incalculable suffering upon humankind as well. At various junctures of history it has been associated with ruinous collapses of society -- by wiping out our food supplies and more. These collapses range from the fall of the Roman Empire to Africa's subjugation by colonialists. And it has always (until now) flourished, disastrously and unstoppably, in times of war.

This once-invincible scourge is Rinderpest (literally "a plague on cattle" in German) and its utter eradication from the face of the Earth was declared officially by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations back in June this year.

With due bureaucratic caution, the FAO had waited a full 10 years since the disease's last recorded occurrence (in Kenya) in order to feel absolutely confident about consigning it to the same very special category -- that of complete extinction -- that's been hitherto occupied by only one other historic plague, smallpox. That declaration was back in 1980 -- and I remember it well -- at the World Health Organization's headquarters in Geneva.

Rather like the victory over that human disease (which we all know to have an animal connection, too -- through its veterinary cousin, cowpox) the armies of health owe their success against Rinderpest to the ultimately effective spread of information...and of course to vaccination.

Though now a commonplace practice, vaccination astonished the human mind when first invented by the late 18th century English doctor, Edward Jenner, in my own old countryside surroundings of Gloucestershire. It provocatively and undeniably stamped us all as denizens of the animal kingdom. Vaccination drew its name from the Latin word for cow, vacca; for it began, after all, with Dr. Jenner injecting cowpox virus from cattle into human arms as a preemptive antidote to the more serious infection.

I should say that I feel a close association with these lengthy medical struggles, and I may even take the entire business a bit too personally -- for the most incidental of reasons. I happen to be one very minor casualty of the eventually victorious war on smallpox. When I was vaccinated as a child, something uncharacteristically went wrong and I ended up contracting, for a short while, a mild form of cowpox.

Rinderpest was an implacable foe for an awfully long time. Rome seemed an apt setting for the June victory ceremony, since the cattle plague once brought the Roman Empire to its knees, in the fourth century. Livestock was wiped out throughout the northern European territories, starving the imperial armies at the very time that "barbarian" invaders, notably the Vandals and Attila's Huns were making devastating military inroads.

Wherever in the world the disease struck through the centuries (as pictured here in South Africa in the 1890s) it devastated agricultural economies, ruining not just dairy and meat farmers but also those raising crops, since they relied on animals for plowing, planting, harvesting and distributing.

It wasn't until the eighteenth century that efforts began in Europe that could turn back the perpetual onslaught. France founded the first school of veterinary medicine, devoted entirely at first to combating this single disease. By the middle of the 20th century the Soviet Union had banished it from the steppe, and under Mao Zedong China emulated this success, with the Indian subcontinent following suit by the 1990s.

In Africa, however, the disease clung on resiliently -- though Africa had been the the last continent to succumb in the first place. Rinderpest was brought there, like so many other ills, by colonialism.

East Africa and the Horn of Africa were the first invasion points. In 1887 Italians -- though not deliberately, just ignorantly -- brought over infected cattle when their army was trying to overrun Ethiopia. The disease's rapid rampage southward helped another marauding empire, the British. The fiercely-resisting Masai nation, whom the Brits first encountered in what is now Kenya, were warrior clans but also nomadic cattle-herders living on their animals' blood, mixed with milk, and their community collapsed, it's been estimated, from a population of half-a-million down to only 40,000.

During my own earliest Kenya assignments I recall reading with a shudder the smug, even gloating, assessment of an official 1919 report that looked back on those horrific events. The famine and human illnesses that followed the loss of the Masai's animals were spelled out by colonial historian G.R. Sandford, who said the disaster "tamed their arrogance, and largely deprived them of their means of subsistence."

With the colonialists long gone, the eventual defeat of the disease came with an important shift in approach, one that is instructive not just for crusading veterinarians, but for all communicators who might have trouble connecting with their targets.

Dr. Peter Roeder a former secretary to the Global Rinderpest Eradication Program, explained to Science Times's dogged and versatile writer Donald McNeil that while working with the Afar people of Ethiopia, his team ("white men wearing khaki and reeking of unfamiliar soaps and deodorants") had found it hard -- unsurprisingly -- to wrangle the cattle and inoculate them. Handing the task over to the tribesmen themselves, training them with clearly illustrated guides and flip-charts as well as with lectures in local languages, made all the difference. The animals took to it better too:

"Someone local, dressed as a local, with mutton-fat rubbed in his hair," said the doctor, "could walk among them and stick in a needle and barely be noticed." Roeder's own specialists would "be lucky to get 20 percent immunity in a herd. Our local guys could get 90, 95 percent."


The obvious, and for our times maybe an unusually hopeful, message is that, after smallpox, the other human disease like malaria, polio, and measles, which are now being aggressively targeted for worldwide eradication, can sometime soon be wiped out in similar fashion.

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "The Media Beat," with more video and audio.