Eliminating disease is a lofty goal, though one rarely attained by humankind.
In fact, modern science has achieved it only twice: first with smallpox in humans several decades ago and then again last year with a disease known as rinderpest or "cattle plague."
Last June, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared that rinderpest was officially eradicated following decades of work in numerous countries. Rinderpest, once a major scourge of cattle and similar wild and domesticated species, such as yaks and buffalo, cut a wide swath across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Over the millennia, famine and economic devastation were left in its wake.
Juan Lubroth, Ph.D. ’95, the FAO’s chief veterinary officer based in Rome, worked for years to defeat the disease. Yet he recognizes that this tremendous accomplishment was possible only through the combined efforts of generations of veterinarians and scientists, governments, nongovernmental organizations and farmers across the globe. The eradication of the first animal disease is a feat that will save millions of cattle and, in turn, will improve the lives and livelihoods of the millions of people who depend on livestock as a food source and for income.
"When herds die, people die," explains Lubroth. "For humans, the effects on nutrition, whether through availability of milk, meat or blood, are enormous."
A passion for animals and science
A native of Spain, Lubroth dreamt of being a veterinarian as a boy. By the age of 11, he began working in an animal clinic near his home in Madrid. His vision has always been to improve the lives of both animals and people. "We share environments, we share pathogens," he says.
After working as a wildlife veterinarian in the Caribbean for the University of Georgia, Lubroth worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Long Island Sound off the Connecticut coast, and then in Mexico as part of a bilateral commission for the prevention of exotic diseases, before coming to Yale in 1990 to initiate his doctoral studies. Once here, he trained with Robert E. Shope and Robert B. Tesh at the Yale Arbovirus Research Unit. "I couldn’t have asked for a better advanced education," he says. "Yale provided a lot of flexibility and opportunity to hone my scientific skills."
Upon leaving Yale, Lubroth continued his service with the Department of Agriculture as an epidemiologist in Brazil in South America’s efforts to eliminate foot-and-mouth disease and to ensure capabilities in emergency preparedness and rapid response. Before joining the United Nations’ Rome office in 2002, he headed the Diagnostic Services Section and the Reagents and Vaccine Section at Plum Island.
Origins of a scourge
Rinderpest’s origins can be traced to domesticated cattle in the steppes of Central Asia thousands of years ago. It spread to Europe and Asia through military campaigns and livestock imports, and in the 19th century it was introduced into Africa by the Italian incursion into what is now Eritrea. It reached all the way to Brazil and Australia in the 1920s but was quickly eradicated through the mass elimination of infected animals and, indeed, of any animals remotely suspected of having with sick animals.
The disease has played a role, though often unacknowledged, in seminal events throughout world history. Outbreaks preceded the collapse of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne’s conquest of Europe, the French Revolution and the impoverishment of Russia. Upon reaching sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the 19th century, rinderpest triggered a famine that was followed by colonization.
It was only in the mid-1950s that a less-virulent rinderpest virus was cultured in bovine tissues-essentially a vaccine that was safer and inexpensive to produce and that could be standardized for quality and efficacy. This tool alone turned the tide, since the vaccine granted lifelong immunity. However, the vaccine had to be kept cool, and in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, high temperatures usually resulted in failed vaccination campaigns.
A highly contagious disease caused by a morbillivirus, rinderpest is closely related to human measles and canine distemper. Afflicted animals suffer a horrific death: cattle and buffalo usually experience high fever, discharges, lesions in the mouth, internal hemorrhaging and diarrhea. Within days, they die dehydrated and emaciated.
In the late 20th century, targeted vaccination accompanied by advances in vaccine development began to tip the odds in favor of winning the battle. But it was the purely human element of old-school teamwork that, in the end, provided science with a decisive victory.
"It was tackled by countries working together, building trust and friendships regardless of nationality, religion or color," says Lubroth.
Enter the FAO
Though the United Nations’ efforts to control rinderpest date back to its creation, its Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) was established in 1994 with the ambitious goal of coordinating efforts worldwide. GREP brought together not only scientific resources and talent but also international cooperation and the financial will--approximately $5 billion--that would be needed to defeat rinderpest.
While there had been many attempts of varying success to control the disease in the hundreds of years prior, GREP was able to mobilize efforts and resources on a scale not seen before and guide use of key scientific advances that made eradication possible. Specifically, in partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the FAO mobilized resources to develop a rapid diagnostic field test that is as simple to use as a home pregnancy test. Additionally, the FAO and partners working in the field evaluated the efficacy and safety of a vaccine developed in the United States that is heat-resistant and able to survive for a month without refrigeration. In some of the world’s hottest climes, this vaccine remained effective, allowing hundreds of thousands of animals to be treated.