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

Rabies is a relentless killing machine that exploits the very thing we love most about dogs, their sociability with humans. The virus kills 55 thousand people a year; unless bite victims are treated before the onset of symptoms, the pathogen’s mortality rate is nearly 100 percent. According to the World Health Organization, dogs continue to be the source of human death in 99 percent of the cases.

Bill Wasik, senior editor at Wired, and veterinarian Monica Murphy take us into the 4,000-year-old battle against the virus, and humankind’s efforts to cure, treat and prevent it. In addition to reviewing the history of the disease and the legends and myths that surround it, the authors examine an array of folk medicines and dubious cures, from throwing the unsuspecting bite victim into a tank of cold water to making a poultice of the biting dog’s brain.

A word of caution for dog-lovers: the book isn’t for the faint of heart. Suffice it to say that dogs’ lives have not been easy, and they weren’t really our best friends until 1884, when Pasteur and Roux developed the rabies vaccine.

The book includes a case study of how the virus can infect a rabies-free island and kill hundreds of people in only a few years. On Bali in 2009–2010, a botched effort to contain the disease resulted in the brutal butchery of 100,000 dogs. However, one problem with exterminating dogs, infected or otherwise, is that it creates an empty ecological niche and others move into the vacuum, creating even more of a problem. CDC scientists finally convinced authorities to use a trap, test, vaccinate and release program to immunize 70 percent of the canine population, which, statistically, was the reverse “tipping point” required to control the disease.

The book is a terrifyingly entertaining tale of disease, dogs, madness, vampires, werewolves, immunology and hope.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 72: Nov/Dec 2012

Jane Brackman, PhD, is an authority on the cultural history of canine domestication and the author of two books on pets in 19th-century America. See her new pup, Barkley, and watch him grow on her blog.

doctorbarkman.blogspot.com

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