Americans have a strange relationship with rabies. Most of us have never seen a full-blown human case up close — they’re vanishingly rare here and in most developed countries — but it’s a constant whisper at the back of our minds whenever we see a raccoon, or hear about yet another coyote venturing into a city park, or even see a strange dog in the neighborhood.
In “Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus,’’ Bill Wasik, a senior Wired editor, and his wife, Monica Murphy, who has degrees in public health and veterinary medicine, unpack this fear and explain its history. The result is a very readable, fascinating account of a terrifying disease.
Early on, Wasik and Murphy warn that “this book is not for the squeamish or weak-kneed.” Rabies is truly vicious. It keeps a low profile in the human body for a period after the bite, preparing for a final assault. “[L]ike almost no other virus known to science,” they write, “rabies sets its course through the nervous system” rather than the bloodstream, “creeping upstream at one to two centimeters per day (on average)” until it reaches the brain.
There, it unleashes hell. “Aggression rises to a fever pitch; inhibitions melt away; salivation increases. The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness — because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.”
In their loosely chronological narrative, Wasik and Murphy grippingly trace the cultural history of the disease, from ancient (almost entirely bunk) cures, including steam baths and brine pickles (which were to be applied to the wound, not eaten), to the hysteria that overtook the French in the 19th century, when it was believed that “even the friendliest dog on the street, or in an acquaintance’s home, might suddenly deliver a bite (or lick!) that became a death sentence.” Along the way they throw in plenty of medical history, and a fair bit about the personalities of those who have fought the disease.
The book has a canine preoccupation. Because while rabies afflicts a variety of mammals, dogs, by far, provide the disease with its readiest access to humans. “Rabies coevolved to live in the dog,” Wasik and Murphy write, “and the dog coevolved to live with us — and this confluence, the three of us, is far too combustible a thing.”
So as a result of dogs’ near ubiquity in human civilization for millennia, rabies offers more than the usual fair share of insights into human nature. What makes it so compelling an ailment, of course, is that it dances the line between human and beast, both in its epidemiological trajectory and in its symptoms — human victims become less than people, as though the disease is dragging them back to their animal pasts.
In the end, we’ve mostly tamed rabies (and much of the credit goes to Louis Pasteur, who worked tirelessly to develop the vaccine), but it still pops up in unexpected places, from dogs in Bali (whose residents, despite a deeply culturally important propensity toward dog ownership, had long boasted of having a rabies-free island) to raccoons in the parks and alleys of Manhattan. So “Rabid’’ reminds us that the disease is a chilling, persistent reminder of our own animal connections, and of the simple fact that humans don’t call all of the shots.