Monday, 1 April 2013

The cultural and medical histories of Rabies engagingly explored in Rabid

From The Week of March 25, 2013

Viruses reek havoc upon the human mind. For not only do they have the power to starve it of resources, reducing it to an unintelligent sludge, they can attack it through fear, divesting it of all rationality and making of its host an exceedingly soft target. Despite the innate difficulties of battling a scourge one cannot see, however, many of these viruses have been brought to heel, their effectiveness muted by science. And yet, some remain to haunt us, some that refuse to have their claws so easily clipped. Mr. Wasik and Ms. Murphy marvellously documents the most infamous of these vehement holdouts in his excellent chronicle of Rabies.

For all but the last few centuries of its existence, humanity has been blind to the threat of viruses. Its conceptions were limited to what it could taste, touch and feel. So while the species had soem understanding of what was harmful to its health, it could not even imagine the ecologies that lingered beyond the vistas of human vision. And yet, something had to be there. For tribal man could see quite well the consequences of contracting deadly viruses, chiefly, the loss of their companions felled by nothing more than the sudden onset of ill health.

First with the ancient Greeks and then with the Arabs, this understanding began to evolve, but not before superstition had taken hold. Before we knew why, we knew how. And in the case of Rabies, this was particularly apparent. For one had to but wait a few days after being bitten by an enraged subset of mostly friendly animals to feel the deadly consequences: the nightmares, the fear of water, the sleepless nights, the creeping death.

Devils and demons were conjured up to explain such violent and terrifying punishments. And yet, few of these could imagine the truth, that Rabies was a most insidious virus, a chain of genetic information with the singleminded goal to propagate, to spread, to consume. Eschewing the most conventional routes of pathogen's (the blood stream), it attacked the nervous system, inching its way up to the brain which, defenseless against its ravages, succumbed to that most straightforward kind of madness, the bite, a most expeditious method of passing copies of itself on to the next, inviting target.

From the characteristics that made it legend to the scientists who reduced it to mere mortality, Rabid is an entertaining journey through the history of Rabies. Penned by a veterinarian (Murphy) and a journalist (Wasik), it competently mixes humor with fact to create a most edifying illumination of a genetic sequence that, though relatively rare, particularly within civilization, has nonetheless had a profound impact on our conception of horror. The authors contend that the myths that gave birth to vampires, werewolves and zombies were all heavily influenced by our fear of the bite which does not merely emanate from our distaste for pain, but from something far more elemental, an aversion born of memories written into our heritage.

Rabid has its stumbles. It makes almost no attempt to advance our understanding of Rabies' genetic properties. Moreover, it seems, at times, much more concerned with its cultural impact than its medical one. But these are minor gripes in what is otherwise a thoroughly engrossing read that winningly captures the full might of science, particularly its capacity to isolate a problem, reduce it to its component parts and to deduce, through trial and error, a method of rectifying it. Here, this is particularly exemplified in the time the history devotes to Louis Pasteur, the famous French scientist who, in addition to discovering germs, took a largely successful swing at Rabies as well, reducing it from a fearful unknown to a problem that could be vaccinated if not cured. This, along with an intriguing comparison of how the East and West conceive of Rabies' primary carriers, allows Rabid to easily overcome its drawbacks.

This is eminently consumable work. And yet, for all its lightness, Rabid possesses sufficient depth to leave the reader's knowledge of the world of viruses significantly advanced. Most satisfying... *4/5 Stars)

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