Rinderpest: Death, Destruction And Opportunity

8 Sep 2020

When I recently visited a friend who had moved into a new home in Windhoek, I found myself looking at the name Robert Koch Street and wondered, who was Robert Koch, and why did his name  sound so familiar?  

After a quick search on the internet, I quickly found another memorial in Germany, The Robert Koch Institute or more formally known as the Public Health Institute in Germany. Here is also where the mausoleum of Robert Koch can be found. The Institute has been at the forefront of fighting the current Covid-19 pandemic in Germany, and remains the country’s main information hub for this pandemic.  

Why is this street in Windhoek named after someone who seemingly has no connection to Namibia?  

After further digging and reading, I finally found the link.  

Gondwana Collection Namibia

In 1896, our country was grappled by a severe drought, and it was during this time that cases of Rinderpest had been reported in the Transvaal, South Africa, and in the Zambezi River area on our northern borders.  

When Governor Leutwein received the reports of this outbreak, he took immediate action to prevent the spread of the disease. The eastern border of the country and the southern boundary of the then Owamboland was dotted with control posts. These borders were patrolled on foot and the control posts were manned by military personnel.  

Movement across these borders was strictly prohibited. The import of skins, horns and other animal products was prohibited. Contact between the various control posts was established by foot patrols and livestock and people were not allowed to settle in a radius of 30km of the cordon. This was the beginning of the Veterinary Cordon Line or the Red Line as we refer to it today.  

Despite all these preventive measures, the disease spread across the borders and reached the country. The first suspected outbreak was reported along the Skaap River, reaching Windhoek on 6 April 1897.  

The colonial government constructed the first Veterinary Laboratory near farm Gammams in 1897. The country’s first vet, Dr Willhelm Rickmann, arrived in 1894 and had made enormous progress in the fight against Lung Sickness and Horse Sickness, but the Rinderpest outbreak and the measures taken in response, had proven unsuccessful.  

The authorities then turned to Dr Robert Koch for assistance. Dr Koch had previously made breakthroughs in the fight against Anthrax, Tuberculosis (TB) and Cholera; his work on TB had won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1905.  

He arrived in South Africa in 1896 to assist the De Beers Diamond Mining Company and to do research on an illness that the miners were suffering from. Dr Koch’s opportunity to do thorough research on this, was cut short when he was instead called to India, where the Bubonic Plague had broken out, while his assistant, Dr Kohlstrock, who had travelled with him to Africa, was sent to the German colony.  

The two of them had previously made great strides in developing a vaccine for the pandemic, by using a mixture of gall from animals which had died and other medicines that had the best results on inoculated cattle.  

Control measures were now implemented systematically and the whole country was sub-divided into vaccination areas. Officers, civil servants, soldiers and settlers were receiving training in vaccination procedures.  

But, the vast area of the country, the large cattle herds and the distances between settlements proved to be difficult to conduct a successful vaccination campaign. There also arose  suspicion among indigenous cattle owners about the vaccination programme which resulted in devastating losses.  

Almost all livestock farming and meat production was brought to a standstill and meat prices tripled.  

For the OvaHerero the devastation meant impoverishment. The OvaHerero, who had dominated the cattle trade before the outbreak, suffered extreme losses which are estimated to be between 65-80% of their cattle. With such a severe blow to their livelihoods, large tracts of land were sold in order to survive.  

The Rinderpest had also affected transport, which directly affected the economy and development of the country. Up until then, Ox-waggons were the choice in transport, but cattle losses convinced the German authorities to construct the railway line between Swakopmund and Windhoek. Construction started in 1897 and was completed in 1902. After the German surrender in 1915, the country boasted a railway system of almost 2400 km.  

It also triggered the growth of the interest in Veterinary Sciences in Namibia which isstill upheld today. The Veterinary Fence remains, almost 125 years later. It does not protect against the spread of Rinderpest anymore, but mostly against Foot-and-Mouth Disease.  

Driving down the Robert Koch street in Windhoek, I could not help but feel proud. Namibia has always proven that opportunities truly do lie in the ashes of pandemics.

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