Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical VirusRabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tracing rabies from its primordial beginnings to modern outbreaks, this cultural history is a fascinating introduction to a disease that embodies our deepest fears.

I class this book as horror because rabies is a disease of nightmares, causing aggression and hydrophobia in its hosts before mercilessly killing them 100% of the time. And the perfect host is your trusty dog. Truth can be more terrible than fiction. Though rabies is largely under control in the U.S., 35,000 people still die worldwide every year.

Wasik and Murphy trace the history of rabies and humanity's response to its ravages from Babylon to the European "Middle Rages" to modern times. They discussion other zoonotic plagues (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) like swine flu, Ebola, and AIDS. There is a fascinating chapter on the story of Bali's recent fight against rabies. Controlling zoonotic diseases carries all sorts of cultural implications, embedded as they are within people's attitudes toward dogs and other animals.

Dogs at the Bali clinic.
2010 article in the Sydney Herald: Rabid dogs bite a chunk out of Bali's tourist trade

My favorite part was the fascinating account of Louis Pasteur's creation of the science of immunology with his breakthrough rabies vaccine. Pasteur is my science hero: he tackled terrible diseases and saved people's lives with careful scientific experimentation paired with intellectual ingenuity. Pasteur and his assistants showed incredible courage, too. The only way to get samples is to take them from live, infected animals: back then, a bite was a terrifying death sentence.
A paragraph that grabbed my attention (as background, the only way to test for rabies in animals is to examine their brain tissue.):
"Now, after two years of sawing, we feel we have finally finished the job, and are pleased to ship it off to you, the reader. Come to think of it: in the case of a fox, or a cat, or even a toy-breed dog, the severed head might weigh just about the same as the book in your hands right now. Hold it in your outstretched palms, why don't you, and close you eyes. Not very heavy, is it?" - p. 11-12.

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