I haven’t slept for two days. And that’s a good thing. This book has its hooks in me, and for some reason I tend mostly to read it late at night. And then, I can’t sleep.
Rabid: A Social History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, it’s called. By Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. And they’re not kidding about that ‘diabolical virus’ stuff. Rabies is one scary kind of sick.
You get rabies, and you go viciously, violently nuts. Rabies victims become irrationally furious. Raving, maddened, biting mad. Murderous. Capable of horrific acts against their nearest and dearest. Frothing at the mouth. It’s also called hydrophobia, because rabies’ victims are consumed with a terrible, unslakable thirst. Simultaneously, they’re completely terrified of water, incapable of even being near it. That’s the part that keeps me up nights–thinking about that, about literally dying of thirst, while also utterly petrified with the fear of water. That’s one exquisite torture.
And the mortality rate is right up against 100 percent. Occasionally, anecdotal evidence emerges of a rabies’ survivor. Most have been discounted. The thing is, rabies has a very long gestation period, and if you get to a bat or dog bite in time, there’s a perfectly fine treatment: a vaccine, developed by Louis Pasteur (the hero of the book). It’s very effective. Basic medical protocol nowadays for any bite victim is immediate application of the Pasteur treatment. So folks, if you’re reading this, and your kid got bit by something, get ’em to the doc. Now. If you wait too long . . .
There is now a treatment, a last ditch, experimental, only occasionally effective one. One of the really remarkable stories in the book is the story of Jeanna Giese. This Wikipedia article explains it well. Jeanna was a teenaged girl, bit by a bat, who didn’t think anything of it until she’d developed full-on rabies. With no effective treatments in the medical literature, her doctor, Rodney Willoughby came up with one. It’s called the Milwaukee protocol, and it saved her life. Willoughby figured he’d give her immune system a chance to fight it off by putting her in a coma. It worked. Jeanna Giese survived, though when she came out of the coma, she’d lost most motor functions. She had to learn how to walk again, how to feed herself, how to ride a bike. But she lived, and is today a happy, healthy recent college graduate. Since 2004, Willoughby’s treatment has been tried on thirty-five patients world-wide. Six (including Giese) have survived. It seems to help if, like Giese, the afflicted patient is a healthy, active young person.
Rabies has been essentially eradicated in the US and in most western societies. There’s a vaccine for dogs, and an effective treatment for humans, if you catch it in time. But rabies is still a killer in developing nations. Some countries can’t afford to go on a vaccination program for dogs. Can’t afford the post-bite protocols of Pasteur’s treatment for infected people. The island of Bali had essentially eliminated rabies entirely. No native bat population, no infected dogs, on an island. Then one guy smuggled in a dog that was, it turned out, infected. And that dog bit another dog. Within a few months, 250 humans had died from rabies.
Wasik and Murphy, however, are particularly interested in the social history aspect of rabies. They believe in (and make a convincing case for) the idea that the basis for folk myths about vampires basically comes from rabies. Think about it; a bite, leading to irrational vicious violent behavior. Plus, you know, bats. Works for zombies too, come to think of it. And (dogs, right?) werewolves.
And so Wasik and Murphy explore the whole history of vampire/werewolf/zombies. All three monsters are created by bites, all three are otherwise inexplicable, all three are terrifying. I learned a lot about vampire lore. I hadn’t realized that Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t start a vampire craze, but was sort of the culmination of an existing fascination. There’d been lots of vampire tales before his. What Stoker accomplished was to connect vampires with aristocrats. His Dracula is a nobleman seducer, at least somewhat charming, not the vicious indiscriminate killer of previous iterations.
But the larger point of the book has to do with the relationship between mankind and the animals we befriend. Rabies disproportionately affects dogs, and we think of dogs as man’s best friend. We love our dogs. We prize them for their loyalty and affection. I had a dog growing up, a wonderful mutt that I would have trusted with my life. I named her Prancer, leading to reindeer names for her one and only litter of puppies (a Donner, a Blitzen, a Cupid). She was part toy collie, part something else, and I think probably part sheep; her coat was white and thick. Two of my children have dogs. It’s difficult to imagine human society without dogs.
And yet, rabies turns that inside out and upside down. Dogs, our loyal friends, become unrecognizable: treacherous, ferocious, deadly. It’s awful. And when humans contract the illness, they also become Other, ravening, mad strangers.
And isn’t that the tragedy of zombie movies? That these insensate beings bent on our destruction were once human beings, once our friends and neighbors and family members? The tragedy of rabies becomes the fictional tragedy of popular fiction–friends become dreadful and strange and lethal.
It’s not just rabies. The book also discusses other zootropic diseases (transmission from animals to humans). The great 1918 flu pandemic killed 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population–possibly 100 million people world-wide. It was most likely a variant of swine flu. The black death, plague, was transmitted via the fleas on rats, while smallpox, maybe the worst killer in human history, is from cowpox. Cattle, pigs and dogs, and rats; the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse. Man’s best friend, mankind’s favorite sources for meat, and our garbage dump neighbors.
Wasik and Murphy write superbly, with just enough sense of snarky irony to take the edge off their subject matter, but with genuine erudition and insight. After my daughter recommended it, I couldn’t put it down, though it’s also in many ways a horrifying read. Rabies, man. Scary stuff. And this is a great book about that scariness.