Saturday, October 20, 2012

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik & Monica Murphy. Viking, 2012

Rabies has been with- and horrified- people throughout history. The virus can infect any warm blooded creature and is nearly 100% fatal once symptoms show. It travels directly through the nervous system rather than the more usual route of the bloodstream, allowing it easy access to the brain. Once there, it takes over the victim’s actions, creating an aggressive, raving, biting disease vector in the place of the familiar creature or person.

The authors follow rabies through history, both medical and cultural, positing that rabies may be behind the legends of zombies, werewolves, and vampires. They write about how so many truly horrible diseases are zoonotic- originating in animals and passed to humans: influenzas, plague, ebola, hanta, anthrax. A lot of space is devoted to Louis Pasteur’s development of a rabies vaccine- the only really effective method of stopping the virus. And they write about the status of rabies today.

In America, we tend to think of rabies as pretty much under control. There are cases of it, but they are fairly rare and most often in wild animal populations. In other parts of the, though, that isn’t the case. In India, someone dies from rabies about once every 30 minutes. And events in Bali show how easy it is for rabies to be reintroduced; they had eradicated the virus on the island until someone broke the law forbidding the importation of dogs and brought one in with rabies, which spread rapidly because not only had they stopped vaccinating for it, but there was no decent rabies vaccine available for either pre- or post- exposure use.

Given the horrific subject matter, the book could have easily taken a tabloid tone. The authors steered away from that, though, and have presented an even, thoughtful book, albeit one that will have the reader giving the side eye to the raccoon at the trash can. 


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