Books
4:01 pm
Thu July 19, 2012

Terrible Virus, Fascinating History In 'Rabid'

Originally published on Thu July 19, 2012 6:38 pm

Here's your vocabulary word for the week: zoonosis. It describes an infection that is transmitted between species. For example, the disease that the husband and wife team of Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy have written about in their new book, Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus.

Wasik is a journalist; his wife is a veterinarian, so the rabies virus seems like a natural topic for conversation. "Veterinarians spend a lot of time thinking about rabies, even though in this country, we hardly ever see it," Murphy tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "So I've been bringing home stories about rabies from my education and from my reading for a long long time."

Murphy's stories about rabies intrigued her husband. "I started to think about all the cultural resonances of that and even just of the word 'rabid,' " Wasik says. "So we realized that it would be fun for us to work on a book together about it."

Rabies is a terrible virus, causing immense suffering before it kills. "It's a really awful way to go," Wasik says, "but if you take a step back, you sort of have to admire it because it is one of those pathogens that actually compels the host to spread it."

The virus attacks the limbic system, which Murphy describes as the seat of anger, fear and desire. "The rabies virus creates a pretty effective rabies-spreading machine," she says, as maddened, infected animals bite and spread the disease through their saliva.

That idea of the infected bite that spreads madness and death is at the heart of many great modern horror narratives: Wasik says tales of vampires, werewolves and even zombies have some rabies in their DNA.

Rabies also, chillingly, blurs the line between human and animal. "I feel like that is the reason why we've always feared rabies more than is necessarily warranted by the number of people that it kills," he says. "The very disease itself is like a transfer of an animal essence to a human being ... the fear and the biting ... it is an animal aggression, transferred to us."

But rabies is rarely seen in this country; Murphy didn't see a rabid dog in person until she traveled to Indonesia during an outbreak. There were limited measures in place to control the spread of rabies; mostly, people shot the sick dogs. "Despite the large-scale culling efforts, the virus continued to spread around the island and many people died, so it's good that eventually the government came around to vaccination," she says.

That vaccine was originally developed by the French scientist Louis Pasteur in the 19th century; in fact, it was the first modern vaccine developed in the laboratory. Pasteur's work becomes even more remarkable when you consider the fact that he didn't really know what was causing rabies; he called the infectious agent a virus, but at the time, no one had ever seen a virus.

"I think that was Pasteur's great achievement," Murphy says, "that he adhered so fervently to the belief that for any infectious disease, there will be an infectious organism behind it ... that even when he couldn't see it under the microscope, he still went after it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. My vocabulary word for the week is zoo-no-sis, or some say zoo-on-a-sis. In any case, it's spelled Z-O-O-N-O-S-I-S. Zoonosis. The word describes an infection that is transmitted between species, especially between humans and other animals.

For example, the disease that the husband and wife team of Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy have written about in their new book - they write a lot about zoonosis - the book is called "Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, Rabies." Welcome to both of you.

BILL WASIK: Thanks.

MONICA MURPHY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: I should say Bill Wasik, you're a journalist and editor at Wired magazine. Monica, you're a veterinarian. And I gather that your life together for the past couple of years has been immersed in rabies. How has that been?

MURPHY: Well, I guess you could say that our conversations about rabies go back even further. Veterinarians spend a lot of time thinking about rabies, even though in this country we hardly ever see it. So I've been bringing home stories about rabies from my education and from my reading for a long, long time.

SIEGEL: And, Bill, your interest in rabies?

WASIK: Well, you know, she would tell me stories about rabies and how amazing and diabolical the virus was, the way it possesses its host. And I started to think about all the cultural resonances of that and even just of the word rabid, which we use in all these very strange ways.

And so we realized that it would be fun for us to work on a book together about it.

SIEGEL: Yeah. This is a virus that it doesn't just kill, first it tortures. I mean, it's a horrible disease.

WASIK: Yeah. It's a really awful way to go but if you take a step back you sort of have to admire it because it is one of those pathogens that actually compels the host to spread it.

MURPHY: Yeah. The rabies virus acts on the limbic system which is a primitive part of the brain that's the seat of desire, of anger, of fear. And by hijacking the limbic system, the rabies virus creates a pretty effective rabies spreading machine, especially as the virus is meanwhile secreted in large numbers in the saliva.

SIEGEL: You mean you're going to go slaver and bite people is what you're going to do when you have it.

MURPHY: Exactly. That's what rabies would have you do.

SIEGEL: You for the first time, you described this during an outbreak a couple of years ago in Indonesia on Bali. You actually saw a rabid dog for the first time, I gather.

MURPHY: Yes. I had been practicing for 10 years at this point and I'd never seen a rabid dog in the United States but after several days in Bali I saw my first rabid dog and it was a horrible thing to see. A small dog, a purebred, which is unusual in Bali, and suffering mightily, just sort of attacking the sides of the kennel. And I was relieved when it was put to sleep.

SIEGEL: Bill, you really immersed yourself in this project, in the history of what doctors said about rabies and how they described it. And from ancient times through Medieval times people have been proposing just astonishing and horrible remedies for this disease.

WASIK: Yeah. Rabies was - I mean, it sort of remains a very confounding disease for medical science but for the ancients it was especially bad because there was a very long period between when someone got bit and when they maybe got rabies or didn't. So it was very difficult to know whether a treatment worked or not.

And perhaps for that reason you'd have these sort of astonishing ideas about what might stop somebody from becoming rabid or what might save them if they did. Pliny the Elder, in particular, has this sort of amazing list of rabies cures, one of which is to burn the hair from the dog that bit you and to put it in the wound, which actually is the origin of our hangover remedy hair of the dog that bit you. It's actually from this rabies cure from Pliny the Elder.

But you would also say eat the head of the dog that bit you or ashes from the tail of a shrew mouse was one of them. The list goes on and on.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Hair of the dog is one phrase in common usage that comes from rabies. Also when dogs were buried in London, you write, to avoid any possible contagion contact with the corpse they had to be buried, you write, six feet under.

WASIK: Yeah, that's right. And that was from plague times but rabies has always kind of represented the dark heart of the dog. There were these moments or these situations when they remind us that they are these animals, these carnivores that, you know, they might turn on us at any moment.

SIEGEL: Well, Monica Murphy, after we read about the ancients and some of the Medieval supposed doctors and what they did for rabies, we reach the 19th century and we reach Pasteur and we actually have a hero of this story at some point. What did Pasteur do with rabies?

MURPHY: Pasteur developed the vaccine against rabies which was actually the first modern vaccine, the first vaccine created in a laboratory by taking an infectious agent and weakening it through laboratory manipulations such that it could be used to immunize people and protect them against disease.

SIEGEL: He did that without knowing what the agent was. He called this a virus but at that time no one had ever seen a virus.

MURPHY: That's right. Pasteur's great achievement was that he adhered so fervently to the belief that for any infectious disease there will be an infectious organism behind it and that he can make it weaker in the laboratory so as to create immunity in patients that even when he couldn't culture the rabies virus and he couldn't see it under the microscope, he still went after it and figured out a way to make it weaker in the laboratory and to protect people against it.

SIEGEL: One of the fascinating things about the cultural impact of rabies - and I guess Bill, you write about this more - is that the great horror stories of the modern age have been about vampires and werewolves, creatures that are sort of half human and half animal. And it's the very kinds of animals - wolves and bats - that spread rabies and that drive people nuts.

WASIK: Yeah. It's really interesting. I mean, and today of course we have the zombie myth, too. These sort of grrrr horror stories of the modern era are all about savage bites that infect people with the same madness. These myths all seem to have rabies in their DNA.

SIEGEL: That somehow near the border between humans and these other species there lies insanity, there lies rage somehow.

WASIK: Yeah. And I feel like that that is the reason why we've always feared rabies more than is necessarily warranted by the number of people that it kills. The very disease itself is like a transfer of an animal essence to a human being. You know, it's the fear and the biting and, you know, it is an animal aggression transferred to us.

SIEGEL: Well, now that your book is out and, of course, you have to talk about the book now for a while, but do both of you see somewhere over the horizon a time when you won't be talking about rabies every day?

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: The two of you? Bill?

WASIK: Maybe not to other people but I think that Monica and I, we love each other a lot and I think we'll want to just keep on talking about rabies. It's a big part of our lives now and I don't know if we'll want to let that go.

SIEGEL: Monica, you'll always have rabies to talk about?

MURPHY: We'll always have rabies. I'm not cancelling any of my Google alerts.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks a lot for talking with us about your book. The book is called "Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, Rabies." And we've been talking with the authors, Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Thanks a lot.

MURPHY: Thanks so much.

WASIK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related program: