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Book Review: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Black, white, and red cover with image of a rabid dog.Summary:
Taking a cultural and public health perspective, husband/wife writing team, Wasik and Murphy, tell the history of the rabies virus through the present.

Review:
My new library (where I work as a librarian) serves a school of public health.  Working with these students has opened up a whole new world of science to me.  Public health is a fascinating combination of medicine, science, culture, and communication.  So when I saw this public health book on Netgalley, I knew I needed to give it a shot.

This is a completely fascinating book.  Prior to reading it, my main knowledge of rabies came from that episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman where her adopted son’s dog gets rabies and bites her other adopted son’s fiancee. I didn’t really understand how much of a plague it used to be, but I did know that you’re required to get your pets vaccinated for it.

I learned SO MUCH from this book!  And it wasn’t a struggle to read or absorb the information either.  Wasik and Murphy strike that hard to find balance in writing science for the layman.  They explain complex, scientific things without so much scientific terminology as to be a struggle for the average reader but with enough so that you’ve still learned something.  For instance:

With most zoonotic leaps in disease, animal contact is the spark, but urbanization is the bone-dry tinder; a newly evolved pathogen can’t spread from person to person, after all, unless people run across one another in the first place. (location 453)

There are a few passages that use more scientific terminology than that, but they only use them after explaining them.  You do not have to be a scientist to be able to read, enjoy, and learn from this book.

The basic structure of the book is typical of a history book.  In fact, think of it kind of as a scientific history book.  It starts with the earliest accounts of rabies and moves up through time to the present.  The strongest passages are: Greco-Roman history of the disease, Dark Ages history of the disease, Pasteur’s creation of a vaccination, and the modern day outbreak in Bali.  These strike the perfect balance of discussing the understanding and treatment of the disease and the reflections of rabies and fear of rabies in popular culture of that time period.

For instance, in the Greco-Roman period we learn:

Pliny’s thoughts tend to involve using the animal to treat the man. His best-known cure—to “insert in the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bite”—lives on today in our expression “hair of the dog,” referring to a not-quite-so-dubious hangover remedy. (location 473)

Or this fascinating bit of public health history in the Pasteur section:

Pasteur’s collaborator Roux believed that Pasteur selected rabies as a subject for research as a calculated bit of stagecraft, so that his ideas about vaccination would attract maximum public interest. (location 1714)

The other sections, particularly the era after the vaccine to about the 1980s, suffer a bit from a lack of focus and direction.  There’s a part where the authors try to convince us that zombies are a reflection of a latent fear of rabies.  Ok?  But that’s rather speculative compared to the rest of the book.  There are other elements of pop culture that are nowhere near as loosely connected that they discuss, such as the actual rabies books and movies that came out in the UK when the Chunnel was put in and people were afraid that rabid animals would come over to the island nation from France.  That is a tight, interesting connection.  The zombie one was a bit of a stretch.  I was more interested in more information on things like Old Yeller and why the authors think that even with the vaccine in the US and very little threat at the time the public still was fascinated with the idea of a rabid dog.

The book also explores other zoonotic diseases (diseases that originate in non-human animals).  Although this is also technically not rabies, this connection makes a lot more sense, particularly since more started cropping up in the 20th century after rabies was beaten down by vaccination.  The knowledge we have from working against rabies and promoting vaccination of it via public health initiatives could really help with things like HIV/AIDS and H1N1.  This is using past public health experience to aid in future endeavors, which helps give the book a certain umph and validity for modern readers.

So, although the book struggles a bit during the early 20th century time period, the rest of it is very well put-together.  It is written at the appropriate level for a popular science history book.  It is easy to learn from and includes lots of fascinating tid-bits in addition to the basic rabies history and information.  It also demonstrates as a kind of side-story the history of public health.  I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of rabies, the history of vaccination, and most especially to those with an interest in public health issues.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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The Vaccination Paranoia

December 8, 2009 2 comments

For a while now there’s been increasing rumblings of a vaccination controversy.  Apparently this is coming more to the fore-front as Newsweek saw fit to publish an article arguing for the benefits of vaccinating your children.  I know to some of my friends and colleagues in the healthcare community, this anti-vaccination movement seems to be coming nearly out of thin air in the last few years.  They are confused as to why any parent would argue against vaccinating their child in a Western nation.  While I absolutely agree with them, this didn’t exactly come out of nowhere for me.  Until I started working in hospitals, I myself wasn’t vaccinated. *

My parents, mainly my mother, were part of the first wave of the anti-vaccination crowd.  Their reasons for not wanting me to get vaccinated were officially religious.  They believed that your body is the temple of the living god, and therefore you should not purposefully inject anything harmful into yourself.  To them, even though a vaccination is a gentled-up version of the virus, it was still perceived as injecting harm.  In the fundamentalist crowd the leap to “this lighter version of the virus will allow my child to build antibodies so the strong one won’t harm her” just wasn’t made.  I’m not sure if they didn’t believe the science, didn’t understand it, or just didn’t think it was necessary.  Whatever the case, a vaccine was injecting a virus into your body, and that was wrong in the eyes of god so that was that.

Of course there was the other layer thatnon-fundamentalist parents who are anti-vaccination today are also claiming today–the contents of the shot are harmful and at best dumb the kid down, at worst give them Autism or paralyzes them.  Frankly, if this was true, we’d have an epidemic of Autism and paralysis right now.  We obviously don’t.  Most of my public school graduating class was vaccinated, and they were the most intelligent graduating class from my school in ten years, with a record number attending high-ranking colleges.

Even after I had deconverted, thereby losing the religious concern, I still for a long time believed that vaccinations were a big government conspiracy.  We’re seeing this concept now with the H1N1 vaccinations.  There are groups out there saying at best that the pharmaceutical community created the virus so they could profit from the vaccine and at worst that the vaccine will kill or maim all the poor people (or a certain race of people or whatever group the person making the claim is part of).

I know from my own experience that these claims are being made out of fear and ignorance.  People who don’t understand science, were never properly taught science, or who were raised to fear outsiders make claims like this.  Any educated person knows that the scientific community works incredibly hard for the greater good.  What an insult to the scientists who worked to make the H1N1 vaccine to claim that they maliciously created the virus just so they could sell a vaccine!  Claims like this about vaccinations are the same as claiming that the scientific community is evil–a community that works hard every day for the greater good of individuals and society as a whole.  Frankly, yes, I believe the government is messed up in many ways, but one of the things they do right is to support the scientific community, yet these paranoid groups see this support as a conspiracy.  The scientific community is not the government, and just because the government endorses something the scientific community is doing does not make it evil.

What we are seeing building today is the result of a failing educational system and increasing paranoia.  Our society is by and large encouraing paranoia and panic at an increasing rate.  You just have to remember America before 9/11 and after 9/11 to know exactly what I’m talking about.  I’m not going to be all conspiracy theorist about this, but our society is increasingly uneducated and afraid.  Instead of seeking to raise calm, rational, scientific individuals we’re turning into a bunch of paranoid, uneducated, panicking people making bad decisions for the future.  Knowledge and logic impart calm and peace.  I know this from personal experience.  When I thought that schizophrenic symptoms were caused by demon possession, I walked around afraid.  When I learned the biological basis of schizophrenia and the treatments available, I was no longer afraid.  The same is true for the vaccination paranoia.  It is a symptom of a lack of general public knowledge about science.  They are wrong, but there is no quick fix for this.  The answer is an educated, rational populace, and that is going to take time and effort.

*  My father claims he snuck me off to get one round of vaccinations when I was a child.  I don’t remember this, however, and we all know there’s more than one round of childhood vaccinations.