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


I’ve been reading up a storm lately, due to some of the specifics of my new job. Where I had a whole group of ladies to walk with at lunch before, now I walk by myself. So I have been taking my I-Pod with an audiobook loaded on it out to walk. My sister-in-law says that’s not reading… but for lack of a better term, reading it is. You get the point, I’m sure.

As I was perusing the library’s selection of titles, I came upon Rabid, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy – of course it piqued my interest, because I’m just that kind of girl. And why not?  What disease is more efficient at killing its host than rabies? Rabies kills 100% of human victims of the disease if it goes untreated before symptoms begin; with an agonizing death whose symptoms include headache, body aches, paralysis, and most curiously, hydrophobia, an irrational and often violent fear of water.

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

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

The book begins with historical references to rabies, which was first described in historic literature over 4,000 years ago. It is thought to have begun to spread to humans in larger numbers with the domestication of the dog, although all mammals can be afflicted. The first chapter includes a series of terrifying yet comical present day attacks by rabid animals; including a bobcat who walked into a bar (how’s that for the beginning of a sick joke?), and a rabid donkey.

I learned that rabies is not a disease of the blood stream – rather the virus makes its way through the central nervous system to the brain. As a result, it takes longer for the virus to travel to the brain, up to a couple of weeks in humans, and often several months in animals.

The book also documents the similarities between symptoms caused by rabies and medieval accounts of vampires and werewolves, leaving the reader to conjecture whether rabies was the catalyst for stories of these frightening monsters. Frighteningly, people suspected of being a vampire or a werewolf were murdered much like suspected witches of the day, and some even confessed to being a vampire or werewolf.

As the book continues its meandering path, we learn the story of Louis Pasteur’s research into rabies, and the discovery of an effective vaccine to treat rabies post-bite. He was tortured by the idea of experimenting on human subjects, even though these people had been confirmed to have been bitten by a rabid animal, and well, we already established that without treatment the fatality rate is 100%. Given the options, wouldn’t you want to try something? Interestingly, the treatment for rabies now is no longer the series of huge shots in the abdomen – apparently now you just need 4 shots, typically in the muscle of the upper arm, and they are no more painful than a flu shot.

The authors also document the Milwaukee protocol – an experimental treatment involving an induced coma, and a cocktail of medications to help the body naturally fight off the disease. The first time it was tried, it was complete guesswork to determine what treatment they would try.  Thy physician who developed it had just 24 hours to research a treatment for a disease he’d never actually seen in real life, as a little girl lay ill in a hospital room, sure to die within a few days.

Of the several dozens of people who have been given the Milwaukee protocol (with varying degrees of controls on various points – some have not started the treatment right away, some didn’t receive the exact same cocktail of drugs, etc.), only 6 have survived, most with significant side effects including major traumatic brain injury. The original girl who received the protocol and survived is doing well, but does have some lingering side effects over 10 years later.

And rabies today? Although there is an effective vaccine, and post-bite vaccination treatment, between 35,000 and 50,000 people continue to die every year from rabies, mostly in the developing world. There the cost of vaccinating is prohibitively high, thanks in part to the anti-vax movement, whose insistence that the preservative thimerosal and its trace amounts of mercury be removed from vaccines has increased the price significantly, due to the fact that all vials must now contain a single dose. (Oh well, as long as my kid doesn’t get autism – who cares about the developing world!? Never mind that that faulty research has been thoroughly debunked, and the guy who put it out there lost his medical license for doctoring his study. I digress.)

In the United States, most deadly rabies bites are inflicted by bats. Bites so small that you may never know that you have been bitten. Because of this, they recommend that if you awaken to find a bat in your room that you receive the post-exposure vaccine.

Admittedly, rabies is a morbid topic. The authors did a great job of injecting historical facts and research with pop culture references to rabies and its tenuous relationship to monster lore. I learned quite a bit about a disease I had never known much about.  Really my sole experience up to this point was scenes in Cujo and the perennial classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. I would recommend it for anyone who wants to indulge their strange fascination with deadly disease.

Have you read Rabid? Ever seen an animal with rabies?

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

  1. Didn’t read the book and never saw an animal with rabies. I don’t want to wake up with the bat in my room in any case, but thanks for the pointer. And by the way, in mu humble opinion audio books still count as reading – they are not called “books” for nothing. Cheers!

    • It would freak me out to wake up with a bat in my house! Or even have one in my house when I was already awake. I totally think audiobooks are still reading! It’s about the knowledge and stories imparted, rather than the way it gets into your brain. By that logic, reading to your kids wouldn’t be reading either! 🙂

  2. yes, first world problems- what most of the world wouldn’t give to have their kids vaccinated (or not worry about hunger, but that’s another topic 🙂 My first association with rabies was with Old Yeller-and I will never watch that movie again! I worked with animals at the research department at UC Davis and we had to have the rabies preventative vaccination- wonder how long it’s good for…

    • I know, right!? We get pretty caught up in “problems” of our making and forget to stop and think about how our actions impact others. I’ve seen Old Yeller, but I was young and I must have blocked it out, fortunately. I’m not sure about the rabies preventative – I believe someone who has had it still gets a series of shots if bitten, but without one component…

  3. That’s just the kind of girl I am, too. Sounds like a fascinating book! I studied zoology as an undergrad and in a mammalogy class we were required to accompany one of the professor’s grad students on a research project. One of the options was a guy who was studying Little Brown Bats, but if we wanted to join him, we were required to get the rabies vaccine. I chose to work on the Golden Mouse project. Seemed safer.

    • It was pretty fascinating… Now, I would totally go for studying the bats, but probably in college I would have balked at the idea of getting the vaccine. I did have a friend in South America who was bitten by a dog and had to get the vaccine. At the time, he never said anything about it being really painful, although apparently that’s because it wasn’t… 🙂

  4. It’s amazing what an impact such a small group of anti-vaccine people has had on everything from vaccine cost to disease epidemiology. It’s undoing more than a century of science…pretty sad, really.

    • I completely agree. I am still amazed at how many people continue to maintain the “link” even after it has been thoroughly debunked. And the damage it causes! Rabies is so easily preventable – there’s no reason that tens of thousands of people should still be dying of it, over 100 years later!

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