Did you know that rabies still kills 55,000 people worldwide every year? And that there are plausible connections between rabies and the myths of werewolves, vampires, and zombies?
Everyone has heard of this disease. And many of us take our dogs and cats regularly to the vet for their rabies shots. Why do we bother? Why are we so scared of rabies?
It could be the 100% fatality rate.
It could be that rabies is one of the few diseases that travels through the body through the nervous system, rather than the blood stream.
Rabies is a singularly frightening disease and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus is a great way to learn about it its effects on human history.
Bill Wasik is a journalist who wrote the book with his veterinary wife, Monica Murphy. The book goes over the basics of the disease, but as its subtitle, A Cultural History suggests, it goes into depth about what rabies means to people throughout history. The disease has been known since ancient times and ancient writers like Pliny the Elder described it with some accuracy, although their cures usually weren’t much help.
One reason that rabies is so horrifying is that it attacks the brain and changes a person’s personality in a way that a disease like pneumonia doesn’t. A person with rabies is often affected psychologically, including symptoms like paranoia and hallucinations. Victims frequently become terrified of water, even though they want to drink, so rabies is known as hydrophobia. Bill Wasik suggests (as others have done) that these changes are what led to myths of vampires and zombies as they are creatures that are human, but not human at the same time.
The book reveals many quirky facts about rabies. For example, because the rabies virus travels slowly along the nervous system, once a person is bitten by a rabid animal, the onset of symptoms depends on how far way the bite site is from their brain. Therefore a person bitten on the face will get sick more quickly than someone bitten on the foot.
Although still a horrifying incurable disease, rabies does provide some hope in medical science. The rabies virus is unusual in that it can get past the blood brain barrier, which usually prevents viruses and bacteria, but also medicines, from getting from our blood into our brains. This means that theoretically a modified version of the rabies virus could be used to get medicine into the brain.
Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus is a fascinating, but sobering book. It is not a medical text, but it is an excellent choice for people who enjoy medical and epidemiological history like The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson or Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack. I also recommend it for people who like science writing, or those who are fascinated with zombies and vampires and other creatures who are frighteninglyaltered humans.
Check the WRL catalog for Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus