Subitled, A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. It remains the “most fatal virus in the world, which kills nearly 100% of its hosts in most species, including humans”. By nearly 100%, they mean a handful of people have survived, and I do mean literally a handful. For practical purposes, don’t count on being the next survivor.
It’s diabolical in more ways than one. The symptoms are not apparent until it has wormed its way into the brain, by which time it’s too late. Its delivery system is also diabolical and unique. It both infects the saliva of its victims AND drives them to bite others.
The only way to tell for sure if an animal is rabid (although its behavior is a big clue), is to kill it and examine its brain. The authors, in a gallows humor sort of way, point out that this is like Schrodinger’s cat.
The animal is literally decapitated, and its entire head is sent to a lab. Assuming this happens quickly, there will still be time to administer the post-infection vaccine, which exists thanks to Louis Pasteur. Of course, it often is impossible to catch the animal responsible for the bite, unless it’s a domestic animal instead of a wild one. And even then–capturing an infected domestic animal with rabies is risky, to engage in extreme understatement here. So the authorities don’t try. They just shoot it. And be glad. It’s the kindest thing they can do for the animal.
In my neck of the woods, any time someone is bitten by a normally shy and reclusive wild animal, rabies treatment is started whether the animal can be captured or not. In fact, there is no question when the animal cannot be captured. Normally this would be a bat, a fox, a raccoon, or a bobcat. If a vaccinated domestic animal is bitten by one of the above, it’s quarantined. If it isn’t vaccinated, say goodbye to Fluffy or Fido. It will still be quarantined, but the outcome is…not promising.
Which brings me to Pasteur. The people in his lab went out and captured dogs who clearly had rabies and brought them back to the lab for study. Inside the lab, they kept a loaded pistol. If any one of them had been bitten, one of the others would have shot him.
Another sort of side story is that Pasteur had satisfied himelf that he had created a post-infection vaccine that would work in animals, but was still reluctant to test it on humans. When at last he did so it was on a nine-year old boy named Joseph Meister. As a man, Meister became the concierge of the Insitut Pasteur. I now quote: “When the Nazis, on occupying Paris, attempted to visit the Pasteur crypt [located in the Institute] in 1940, Meister bravely refused to unlock the gate for them. Soon after this discouraging event, he took his own life”.
Pasteur was not a doctor, and had to enlist the aid of one to actually administer the injections to Meister. At that time it was a series of something like 13 injections over ten days or so, that would be very painful. Today it’s four injections in the arm.
I could never write a post long enough to cover the wealth of information in this book. As usual, I have only hit the highlights as I see them. But I’ve omitted the sad and almost amusing explanations people had for the cause of rabies, pre-Pasteur. And rabies has been around as long as (if not longer) than there have been mammals.
But a final few words about bats. Bats are one of my favorite animals. Before the construction of Walmart in my neighborhood, which drove them away, I used to love sitting at my backyard picnic table at dusk and watching the bats. They would often fly so close to me I could hear their wings whirr. You have to steel yourself to an extent, not to flinch. You have this irrational fear that one will become entangled in your hair. Of course that never happened. That sonar thing really does work. Bats have the extra added attraction of eating mosquitos. Anything that eats mosquitos is on my side (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.)
I’ve always known that bats carry rabies, and if one ever did become tangled in my hair, it would mean it was sick and I should carry myself to the nearest Emergency Room forthwith, hopefully with (dead) bat in hand.
Still I was saddened to read this: “Bat bites are now the cause of nearly all human rabies infections in the United States, accounting for 32 out of 33 deaths from domestic exposure since 1990”. And, “Bat bites are so subtle that people can be unaware of it, especially in the night, when a bat bite is sometimes not even painful enough to wake a sleeping human. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that anyone who awakens with a bat in his or room seek out vaccination for rabies. Likewise, any unattended child or mentally incapacitated person found in the presence of a bat should be treated as if he or she were exposed”.
The book is a great blend of science, human and natural history, and amusing anecdotes despite the gravity of the subject.