A cultural history of rabies

Like many people, I hate going to the dentist. Fortunately, my new dentist’s office is right down the street from the public library. So instead of dreading my trips to dentist (fortunately for me, he’s a very good one and likeable as well) I can now look forward to a short trip to the library before or after an appointment. One afternoon after an appointment I was strolling along the library shelves and what did I find but a copy of Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy’s Rabid: A Cultural History of Rabies. Since I’ve been wanting to read their 2012 book ever since I saw it advertised in a recent catalog of the Quality Paperback Book Club, I happily grabbed the copy and made my way to the automated check-out machines. And with all the different books on disease and medical issues I’ve been reading of late, why not check-out a book on one of world’s most deadliest viruses?

As far as deadly viruses go, rabies is a rather interesting one. Rare even among horrific diseases such as Ebola and Lassa fever, without proper medical treatment rabies is 100 per cent fatal. Fortunately for us, there’s been an effective vaccine since the 19th century, thanks to Louis Pasteur and his team. Fortunately also, as virulent as rabies can be, it’s almost exclusively a disease that’s transmitted from animals to animals and animals to humans. Unlike many of world’s terrible diseases like tuberculosis or HIV, it’s rarely if ever transmitted person to person. Just like all zoonotic diseases, the virus has its reservoir. In the US and Canada, as a result of the widespread vaccination of pets and farm animals, it’s mainly in wild mammals such as bats, raccoons and skunks. In the poorer regions of Asia and Africa, where domesticated animals are not vaccinated to the degree they are in the developed world, feral dogs in addition to wild mammals are suspected of harboring the virus.

There’s much to like about Rabid. Since the book’s authors take a social history approach to the disease, in addition to the expected scientific discussion of rabies, there’s quite a bit of attention payed to the influence of the disease in literature and popular culture. Because rabies is transmitted from animals to humans once humans are infected they later develop the same maddening symptoms. Due to this transformational process, according to Wasik and Murphy the disease served to inspire our legends of werewolves and vampires. In our current post-modern age, this role now encompasses the legions of zombies and undead, the subjects of popular TV shows, novels and books like The Walking DeadWorld War Z and Zombieland. The chapter devoted to the survivors of rabies was probably my favorite of the book. A disease previously thought to be fatal unless the patient received a prompt round of vaccinations prior to the onset of symptoms, there have been several documented cases over the last few years of symptomatic individuals who survived thanks to an experimental treatment regimen that included a medically induced coma. So far the jury is still out on this new cure. But understandably there are those in the medical community who are cautiously optimistic concerning its effectiveness.

But Rabid does have its downsides. By taking a narrow subject and giving it book-length treatment, sometimes it feels like the authors are trying to do too much with too little. (Many times these creative little projects are better left as extended magazine articles, like the kind you find in The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Thankfully, I doubt think this is the case with Rabid) Also, sometimes in their quest to show the disease’s cultural influence, I wonder if Wasik and Murphy get a bit too creative with their logic.

But overall I liked Rabid. It’s inspired me to read other books about disease, including David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.  (Since I received Spillover as a Christmas present, it’s currently sitting on my desk awaiting to be read.) Of course, as I’ve said time and time again, whenever a book inspires you to read other books, it’s never a bad thing.



Filed under History, Science

4 responses to “A cultural history of rabies

  1. I was a bit fascinated by rabies when I was younger. If a wild animal seemed a little bold or unafraid, I would wonder if it was rabid. I remember there was a unhealthy looking fox wandering along our property line in Maine and we all were afraid it was rabid. We later found it dead.

    I also recall there was an episode in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman where a relatively important secondary character died of rabies. I don’t think the show was medically accurate about it though, at least not according to my HS biology teacher.

    Anyway, it seems like it’s a somewhat common flaw in these type of non-fiction books, to overstate the influence of ‘x’ on culture and society.

    • Wow, sounds like you’ve had a kind of real life run in with rabies! Kinda scary!
      Always the problem with these kind of books. In order to set up the interesting thesis, there’s always the temptation to maybe overstate the influence of that particular thing. And sometimes when you do, there’s only enough material for an extended magazine article and not a book-length feature.

  2. Pingback: Infection: The Uninvited Universe by Gerald Callahan | Maphead's Book Blog

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Rabid: A Cultural History

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