The most fatal virus known to science, rabies—a disease that spreads avidly from animals to humans—kills nearly one hundred percent of its victims once the infection takes root in the brain. In this critically acclaimed exploration, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy chart four thousand years of the history, science, and cultural mythology of rabies. From Greek myths to zombie flicks, from the laboratory heroics of Louis Pasteur to the contemporary search for a lifesaving treatment, Rabid is a fresh and often wildly entertaining look at one of humankind’s oldest and most fearsome foes.
A recent episode of the RadioLab podcast told the story of Jeanna Giese, a teenager from Wisconsin whom developed symptoms of rabies after being bitten by a bat while attending church with her family. After being admitted to the hospital, her diagnosis was confirmed. Rabies is generally considered 100% fatal once a victim has started to show symptoms. Dr. Willougby, Jeanna’s doctor, spent time researching rabies and any recent discoveries in the treatment of it. Willougby didn’t find anything too promising, but did learn that medical history has shown most rabies deaths are caused by temporary brain dysfunction with little to no damage occurring to the brain itself.
Armed with this knowledge, Willougby and his team devised an experimental treatment for Jeanna. His goal was to put Giese into a medically induced coma to protect her from her brain, with the hope that she would survive long enough for her immune system to produce the antibodies to fight off the virus. Giese was brought out of the coma after six days, once it was clear that her immune system had made progress against the virus. She recovered slowly and not without difficulty, but she did recover completely. This made Giese the first confirmed victim of rabies to survive after showing symptoms.
Willougby’s experimental procedure was called the Milwaukee protocol, and while it seems to have worked for Jeanna, further attempts on other rabies victims has caused a lot of controversy. The reasons for Giese’s survival under the Milwaukee protocol are not straightforward. It’s been shown that other people have survived the virus due to already having rabies antibodies without exhibiting any symptoms. So it’s not really possible to say that the protocol did or didn’t save her life.
I found that story to be quite captivating and suggest taking a listen to the RadioLab episode for more information.
Now, onto the review of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik.
After listening to the previously mentioned RadioLab episode I was interested to learn more about this virus. After finding the book Rabid, I decided to give it a read. Rabid is mostly a history of rabies with a couple of interesting case studies at the end of the book.
The history starts right at the beginning, with the first written record of rabies in the Mesopotamian Codex of Eschnunna, which dictates that the owner of a dog showing symptoms of rabies should take preventative measures against bites. If another person were bitten by a rabid dog and later died, the owner was heavily fined. From here, Wasik continues covering other early rabies beliefs, treatments and general understand of the virus. He then moves onto Medieval times, the 18th century, and the 19th century. There is also a chapter discussing the possible links between rabies and the emergence of vampires, werewolves, and lycanthropes.
My favorite chapter of the book was a chapter dedicated to Louis Pasteur and his creation of the first rabies vaccination. This is a guy with enough medical achievements and discoveries to make almost anybody feel like they aren’t contributing enough to society. Not only did he develop vaccines for rabies and anthrax, he laid the foundation for the discovery of germ theory of disease. But perhaps what he is best known for is his invention for treating milk and wine to stop bacterial contamination, a process now called pasteurization. Pasteur definitely deserves to be called the “father of microbiology”. This chapter was interesting enough to me that I may have to seek out a biography on this guy.
The book concludes with two chapters that serve as more focused case studies of rabies treatment, rather than a more broad history of the virus. The first is a chapter with in-depth coverage of the Jeanna Giese story and the creation of the Milwaukee protocol as a potential treatment for rabies. The final chapter in the book discusses the outbreak of rabies on Bali after a rabid dog was brought to the island on a boat. Before this happened, Bali was a completely rabies free island. We learn here about the difficulty of culling a widespread outbreak of rabies and how quickly actions must be taken to have any effect on its spread at all. Definitely two very solid chapters to finish out the book.
An excellent book for anyone interested in learning about rabies. Though a bit slow with the history in the beginning, the second half of the book really teaches a lot about the disease and how difficult it is to treat and stop from spreading. I recommend this book quite a lot actually, and don’t worry about skimming the early chapters if you aren’t interested in the early history of rabies.
One warning though, since reading this book I’ve become quite suspicious of the rabbits and squirrels that occupy my yard.