Rabies is a disease without a public relations firm. In developed countries, human disease is incredibly rare–we see typically one or two deaths from rabies each year. In contrast, lightning is responsible for about 60 deaths each year. However, worldwide, rabies is another matter. Today is World Rabies Day, a reminder that 55,000 people still succumb to this virus every year–most of them in impoverished regions of Africa and Asia. While cases in the U.S. are typically due to wildlife exposure (rabid bats or even beavers or rabid kitten), infected dogs remain the main vector of infection in most rabies-endemic countries.
In a new book, “Rabid”, Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy have penned an ambitious history of rabies. It’s subtitled, “A cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus,” and this emphasis makes Rabid unique. Indeed, while the recognition of the rabies virus is just a bit over a hundred years old, Wasik and Murphy trace the infection back to antiquity. The first half of the book is, as promised, a cultural history–4,000 years of literature references to rabies, hydrophobia, “rage” disease, and dog- and bat-borne contagion in places as far-flung as various mythologies (Greco-Roman, Christian, and Egyptian, to name a few); medical literature from Aristotle to Pasteur; and even the vampire myths from medieval times up to Sesame Street’s Count. Wasik and Murphy explore the animal metaphors used for millenia and examine them through the lens of rabies infection, as well as colorfully explain the various (mis)understandings of the virus and rabies epidemiology in ancient texts. Though Rabid is certainly a pop-science book, many portions of the book wouldn’t be out of place in various literature, history, and even religion classes, which again lends to the book’s eclectic flavor.
The latter half of the tale, then, focuses more narrowly on the science of rabies, covering Pasteur’s work toward a vaccine; the (rather late) discovery of bats as the ultimate reservoir of the virus; the challenge to mount vaccination campaigns in resource-poor areas, and the lingering fear of rabies to this day, which is sometimes justified and sometimes not. They also cover the controversy over the Milwaukee protocol as a treatment for symptomatic rabies, and the problem of rabies control.
Finally, Wasik and Murphy note that even today, almost 130 years after the development of the rabies vaccine, control of rabies among the biggest human source of disease–infected dogs–is almost as poor in some places as it was during pre-vaccine England. The methods to control it are, in some cases, also equally barbaric. The introduction of rabies into Bali in 2008 led to a mass cull of dogs, shooting many in the street. Eventually, a science-based vaccination strategy was adopted and seems to be helping, but not before well over 100,000 dogs were culled and several hundred people had been killed by the virus. Rabies may be an ancient disease, but it is a scourge that is still threatening us where government lacks the will and the funding to beat back “the world’s most diabolical virus.”