The word rabies, from the Latin rabies, meaning madness, has been used to describe the disease caused by the Rabies virus (Lyssavirus Rabies) since at least 1590 C.E., but knowledge of the condition affecting both humans and animals has been recorded since at least 2000 B.C.E., in the Mesopotamian Codex of Eshnunna. However, since the time of Celsus (50 B.C.E.) up to the beginning of the 20th century, the term hydrophobia was much more widely used, especially among the public. The word derives from the Greek conjugation of hydros (ύδρος), meaning water, and phobos (φοβος), meaning dread or fear which came from the word phobein (φοβειν) meaning to put to flight or scare away. The term comes from the uncontrollable aversion to water in most rabies victims.
Rabies has been one of the most dreaded diseases throughout recorded history, though until the Industrial Revolution, it was never considered the epidemic scourge that syphilis, smallpox, or bubonic plague were. Due to the relatively long incubation period of the virus, and the extreme behavior of the victims (leading people to avoid them), it never had the capacity to spread throughout an entire community, the way other diseases could. Still, the violent spasms, aggression, seeming-insanity, and ultimate death of someone afflicted with the disease had the capacity to terrify anyone who witnessed or heard about it.
This terror reached a fever-pitch in London, during and after the Industrial Revolution. With stray dogs following the people and gathering in the cities, the endemic rabies spread among them to a degree that had never before been seen. It was by no means an affliction of all dogs, but the combination of a large increase in the percentage of dogs with the disease and the number of people in the cities (within biting distance of the dogs - and within eyesight of others when they developed the disease), people started going crazy even without the virus. When someone was bitten by a dog, even one that was not showing signs of rabies, it was not uncommon for them to take their own life out of fear of developing rabies. There are even several cases of family members taking the lives of their relatives after a dog-bite, to “protect” themselves.
In a turn of fortune, it was this overwhelming terror of rabies that led Louis Pasteur to be able to test out his post-exposure rabies vaccine almost as soon as he developed it. In 1885, the first successful treatment of people known to have been bitten by rabid animals occurred, and by 1886, vaccination of animals against rabies began. Today, there are still over 55,000 cases of rabies worldwide, most caused by dog bites. However, in countries with mandatory vaccination laws, and quarantine/cull protocols for feral or aggressive animals, there are fewer than 5 deaths from rabies in an average year.
Today’s post by Arallyn, a humanoid from the third rock from the sun who is fascinated by science and who runs the fantastic blog biomedicalephemera.tumblr.com when she isn’t filling her mind with scientific trivia. Check out her cool blog-I don’t know where she finds her material, but it is spectacular!