Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Little old lady got mutilated late last night

Werewolves, zombies, berserker warriors - these are a few of my favorite things. According to a new nonfiction book, tales of werewolves, zombies, and berserkergangers all owe their persistence to humanity’s age-old terror of rabies.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus describes the disease - how it affects the animals and people who are so unfortunate as to become infected.  Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy show that rabies has always been, throughout civilization, a terrifying public health risk - and in much of the world it still is. It infects many mammals, from donkeys to squirrels to dogs, bats, and people, and kills nearly 100 percent of those who exhibit symptoms.

Famously, in killing its victims it also transforms them into something else - the shy fox into an aggressive attacker; the trusted pet into a foaming killer; the civilized man into a barking, convulsing half-beast.

Robert Carlyle in 28 Weeks Later.
It is the horror of this that has spurred centuries of folklore: infected people, bloody-jawed and mad-eyed, struggling against an inexorable transformation that will cause them to attack and kill those they love. Zombies. Werewolves. Interestingly, while rabies is now vanishingly uncommon in the United States, tales of killers who spread madness with a bite are more popular than ever before.

The authors spend a chapter on the dramatic labors of Louis Pasteur, a scientist who had (among other things) previously developed a vaccine for anthrax. That’s a bacterial disease, a microbe that Pasteur could see though his microscope. In attempting to develop a vaccine for rabies, he was unknowingly battling an organism he did not understand - a virus, too small to be visible. Attempting to isolate the rabies microbe, he accidentally discovered Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes pneumonia - a worthy accomplishment, but a confusing distraction in Pasteur’s attempt to cure rabies. That he did succeed in creating a vaccine for a disease he didn’t understand and couldn’t see is an impressive feat of scientific genius.

In all, Rabid is an interesting book for anyone who enjoys the history of medicine, or anyone who likes stories of inexorable blood-maddened rage-beasts. If you (like me) fit in that Venn diagram, check out Rabid.

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