Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus
by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Fifty thousand people die of rabies each year. Often, given widespread canine vaccination, the carriers are creatures ill-adapted to our company - the likes of bats, foxes and raccoons.

Rewind to an April evening at a rural New York hamlet a few years back. A young couple walking away from their car was suddenly attacked by a grey fox. The couple rushed inside their home and shut the door. But, almost 30 minutes later, when they opened the door again, the fox - still waiting - dashed for the opening; just as its snout breached the threshold, the young man managed to shut the door.

Later, when an animal control officer came, the fox attacked his sport utility vehicle, repeatedly biting its tyres. Shooting again and again from the driver's window, the officer missed. Finally, after running the animal over, he told a reporter that it was the fiercest foe he had faced in nine years on the job.

'This was a four-or-five pound animal attacking a 3,000-pound vehicle,' he is quoted saying in Rabid, by journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy.

Rabies can change meek woodland animals into 'bewilderingly avid attackers', Wasik and Murphy note. Their non-fiction thriller maps rabies' science, history and mythology.

Until vaccination surfaced in the late 19th century, the brain bug killed almost every creature it touched, inflicting agonies that became the stuff of popular horror. Think a foaming-mouthed, hallucinating human zombie racked by 'hydrophobia' - fear of water.

The mechanics behind the volatile virus with a vampire twist long eluded explanation. People blamed an array of random dynamics - everything from cold night air to 'an involuntary association of ideas'. Over millennia of misguided theorising, the nip from the stray in the streets was overlooked.

Enter the 19th-century French microbiologist Louis Pasteur. He laid the foundation for the rabies vaccine deployed today, which beats canine culling, judging by the Indonesian island of Bali.

There, culls sparked protest from animal rights activists and local dog owners. So, changing tack, the authorities hired dogcatchers - cue vaccine injections into the shrieking animals' 'shuddering back muscles'.

The authors' raw experience of the sickness is slight, they admit. But, on the island, they did meet a rabid caged Pekingese, described with surgical sharpness.

'It stumbled about like an angry drunk, attacking its cage bars and yowling - a long, mournful, strangled-sounding howl, ending in a wet, desperate gurgle,' they write, adding that rabies was less scary in the flesh than when brooded on as a prospect or 'phantom'.

Some of their tangents, on werewolves, zombies and vampires, seem indulgent. But, as the Pekingese snapshot shows, the style is strong.