A ‘Rabid’ interest in a deadly disease

All but eradicated in the Western world, rabies does not present the most obviously pressing topic for a cultural history. Surely there are other viruses, other maladies with a more urgent claim on our attention.

But in this well-written book, rife with surprises, narrative suspense and a steady flow of expansive insights, "the world's most diabolical virus" conquers the unsuspecting reader's imaginative nervous system. Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy mount a persuasively argued case for the importance of rabies as both a daunting public health issue, past and present, and a persistent source of deep-rooted terror. It's a smart, unsettling and strangely stirring piece of work.

Not only is rabies especially lethal and all but unique among viruses for traveling through the nervous system, as the authors show, it also arrives with a haunting means of transmission. "As the lone visible instance of animal-to-human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into bestial metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities."

Tacking gracefully from case histories to the ancient Egyptians' view of the dog, from bats to Bali, microbiology to vampire novels, "Rabid" moves with the supple efficiency of its subject. Both the menace and meanings of the disease build inexorably.

The hard facts alone are chilling. Despite an effective and widely used vaccine, 55,000 people still die annually from rabies, most of them in Asia and Africa. The course of an infection is grim, with its stealthily delayed onset, horror-show hydrophobia, fever, pain, hallucinations and awful spasms. Even a chapter titled "The Survivors," which recounts the ultimately successful ordeal of a Wisconsin teenager infected by a bat bite in church in 2004, has a grueling intensity.

Wasik and Murphy cast a wide and skillfully woven net. They begin with the Trojan War, where lyssa -- a primal rage with etymological roots in Greek for both wolf and rabies - drives Hector into his battlefield fury. The trail leads on to Mesopotamia, an ancient Indian medical text, China, Egypt, Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond.

The dog's double nature, as both man's loyal domesticated companion and a beast with "a dark side lurking behind the soulful eyes" has given rabies its unsettling reverberations through the centuries. More broadly, "the distinction between the familiar, domesticated pet and the ungovernable wild animal came to be seen as analogous to that between civilized and savage races."

"Rabid" finds this potent cultural strain examined in such diverse works as "Wuthering Heights," "To Kill a Mockingbird," vampire images by Goya and Blake, and the "Twilight" books and films. In their dog and bat transformations, vampires partake of the intimate, even sexual nature of a rabid bite. "Vampirism is a dark, animal undercurrent that haunts the human - even the most refined among us, and even in our closest relationships."

Another line of connective tissue in the book links rabies to other zoonotic, or animal-origin, diseases. They include the Spanish flu, AIDS, swine flu, West Nile virus and bubonic plague. Wasik and Murphy trace the "incredible and abiding psychological power of animal origins in the cultural reception of disease." When the Channel Tunnel between England and France opened in 1994, 88 percent of one survey's respondents believed that infected European dogs would pour through the Chunnel and render rabies "virtually unstoppable" in the United Kingdom. What turned out to be a hysterical fear of swine flu in Egypt led to the slaughter of 300,000 pigs in that country in 2009.

And as Wasik and Murphy point out, the paranoia served another purpose, since the pigs belonged largely to the persecuted Coptic Christian minority. Here was "an act of prejudice carried out via the law." Diseases - and the attempts to control them - can do damage in multiple ways.

Not everything in "Rabid" is so darkly stained. The chapter on Louis Pasteur, who developed the rabies vaccine, unfolds as an exciting and vigorous narrative. So does the account of Bali's struggle to eradicate rabies from an island that had been completely free of the disease until 2008. A concluding chapter, "The Devil, Leashed," suggests that what we've learned about rabies may lead to breakthroughs in treating other zoonotic diseases.

''Rabid" does occasionally overreach. While Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" may use rabies in a fascinating way, it is surely not "one of the century's great works of fiction." Neither can Danny Boyle's rabies-inspired zombie film "28 Days Later" rightly be called a "lean masterpiece."

But these are minor burrs on a sleek, muscular and altogether absorbing work. With its range and sure-footed command of its material, "Rabid" covers the ground like an animal that knows just what it's after and how to find it.

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