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A cultural history of the world's most diabolical virus

by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Though we have a vaccine, rabies remains a challenge to eradicate or treat, explain Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy in Rabid, a sweeping history of the disease.

IT CAN come out of the dark, frothy-mouthed and deadly. If it gets into your blood, it will travel up your nerves, heading with freight-train-like inevitability towards your brain. More than most other diseases, rabies specialises in striking terror. And so it has been for more than 4000 years.

In Rabid, veterinary surgeon Monica Murphy and Wired senior editor Bill Wasik tell the sweeping tale of the disease, one that begins in the earliest days of medicine and seems to intersect with nearly every major epoch of history. As the authors relate in compelling (and sometimes graphic) detail, rabies has affected dukes, saints and ordinary folks alike. Anyone is susceptible; all it takes is a bite from an infected animal.

Rabies was once far more common: abandoned dogs roamed cities like ghosts, infecting one another and bringing the virus into our homes. Then, as now, nearly all human rabies cases started with dog bites.

Yet after Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux began investigating the disease in their effort to better understand germs, the reach of rabies soon diminished. The pair went on to develop a vaccine to protect against the virus; it was first used successfully on a 9-year-old boy in 1885. Before long, the vaccine was being given to people - at least in countries with the means and the will to do so. It was also used to bring the disease under control in dogs and cats. Today, the likelihood of contracting rabies is slim in most parts of the world.

But the virus is still out there. Short of vaccinating every wild mammal in which the virus can survive, there is no definitive way to eradicate rabies. Raccoons in the eastern US, many types of bat and, of course, stray dogs continue to carry rabies.

That is worrying because in humans who exhibit symptoms, such as hallucinations or aggressive behaviour, the prognosis has not changed since the first recorded cases: if you are bitten by a rabid animal and do not receive the vaccine before symptoms develop, you will almost certainly die. The treatment at this late stage involves putting the patient into a coma, but of 35 people treated in this way, just four have survived.

Until I read this book, I thought little about rabies - beyond remembering to keep my cat's vaccination current. But Murphy and Wasik give life, context and understanding to the terrifying disease. Like the virus itself, this fascinating book moves quickly, exploring both the marginalised status and deadly nature of the virus. And as the authors trace the influence of rabies through history, Rabid becomes nearly impossible to put down.

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