A book about a gruesome fatal disease might not be your first pick as you browse for summer reading, but you might want to give this one a chance. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus is a fascinating look at the history of rabies and its repercussions on both science and popular culture.
Rabid was written by husband-and-wife co-authors Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. The husband is a journalist and the wife is a veterinarian, so I guess that makes rabies a pretty natural subject for a shared writing project.
When I first saw the book, I'll admit that I did not realize it was nonfiction. I don't know what search term I had used, but I was looking at various apocalyptic novels – outbreak, zombie, EMP – and there it was on the list. When I finally realized my mistake, I decided to give Rabid a try anyway. Almost immediately, it had me hooked.
Primal Fear – Rabies In The Old Days
The book sets the stage by talking about the early history of rabies. They know that the disease was very common, enough that the slightest nip from an unknown dog meant an uneasy few days deciding whether it would kill you.
Even more unsettling, when the disease set in, it seemed to transform the personalities of those infected, essentially taking control of their bodies. A rabid bite could potentially turn your most trusted companion, whether a spouse, a child, or the family dog, into a vicious attacker.
For a long time, how any disease was transmitted was not understood at all. Even once microbiology stated to be a science that was practiced, and disease microbes were being identified, rabies remained elusive. Unknown at the time, rabies is a virus and viruses are too small to be seen with an optical microscope, certainly not the types available at the time.
Pasteur and Vaccination
As we move forward in time to the next section of the book, we meet Louis Pasteur, who developed the rabies vaccine. Pasteur was certain that rabies was spread by an infectious agent, even though one could not be found under the microscope. That sort of thinking was indeed revolutionary in a time when theories like spontaneous generation were considered seriously.
Rabies is always fatal to a human or animal that contracts it. How it was contracted was unknown at the time. That means pioneers in studying rabies were equal parts heroic and crazy.
The book relates a story of Pasteur's early work, with the scientist and his assistants collecting saliva from the mouth of a very unwilling rabid dog. One of the assistants stands by with a loaded gun, in case of a bite. If necessary, the gun was not only for the dog but also for any infected member of the research team, as an act of mercy in comparison to the inevitable, grueling death brought by the disease itself.
Rabies in the Modern Day
The authors also go over anecdotes of modern-day outbreaks, such as one that occurred fairly recently on the previously rabies-free island of Bali in Indonesia. The anecdote illustrates what has been well known for a long time, but sometimes difficult to put in practice, especially with a panicked population getting nervous about an outbreak:
- Rabies vaccination works;
- Culling infected populations does not.
Rabies can still only be prevented, not cured. Luckily, the vaccine is relatively cheap and easy to administer. Still, residents fearful of rabies in their area have often resorted to mass killing of dogs, hoping to slow or stop an outbreak. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way, and the needless killing only ends up making things worse.
The cheapest and most effective way to stop an outbreak is mass vaccination of dogs. This is true despite the fact that rabies continues to affect many wild animals like raccoons, foxes, and bats.
It's great that vaccination provides such an effective barrier, but there is still no cure for rabies. Partly, that's due to the success of vaccination – too few people die of rabies anymore to justify spending much money on researching a cure.
Rabies Reverberates In Pop Culture Today
Occasionally though, rabies does pop up in modern society. In a culture that has become accustomed to its absence, the effect of rabies on its victims can be quite startling, and even lead to mass panic over its spread.
The effects of the virus – insane rage and seeming immunity to pain or injury – lead to anecdotes of savage attacks that over the years have turned into monster stories in some of the most popular horror genres in modern books and movies.
by Alex Reisfar
Rabies doesn’t just kill, it transforms people into animalistic creatures, robbing them of control over their own behavior. As an example, the book relates the effects of hydrophobia on humans: No matter how desperately the rabies victim might want to drink from a glass of water, they cannot do it. Their arm seemingly goes frozen, refusing to draw the glass to their face so they can drink, while they shake and cry at their desperate desire to do so. They have lost control, lost free will itself.
It's easy to see how this disease could serve as the impetus for stories about werewolves or vampires or even zombies. Even though it is now almost completely eradicated and treatment methods have improved, rabies continues to pose a real threat. The horror posed by that real threat continues to reverberate through our culture even to this day.
Rabid was a fascinating book and I highly recommend it. After I returned the library copy, I even bought a copy to read at home.