One of the earliest lessons of childhood is to beware of strange dogs because their bites could infect you with rabies. Largely under control in the Western world for more than 100 years, this frightening virus can pop up anywhere. The way different cultures approach it speaks to the ability to handle fear and the ways customs and traditions affect its control.
Lest we blame rabies solely on dogs, it can be transmitted by bats, skunks, monkeys, wild pigs -- and the latest urban pest, the raccoon. That last, famously omnivorous animal, which plagued New York's Central Park in the past three years, is the U.S. species most likely infected with rabies.
In "Rabid," Bill Wasik, an editor at Wired magazine, and veterinarian Monica Murphy trace rabies from mythical times to this decade, when an Indonesian outbreak restored it to primal fear status before the Bali Animal Welfare Association executed an effective, island-wide vaccination program.
"Rabid" blends factoids -- like the derivation of "hair of the dog" (Roman "doctor" Pliny believed the best cure for rabies was to "insert in the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bite") -- with literary criticism: the authors trace links between dog bites, the notion of the werewolf, and vampire fiction from Lord Byron to Bram Stoker to Fred Gipson's novel "Old Yeller," the basis of a Disney movie in which a dog infected by a rabid wolf is killed -- when, in fact, he might have been saved.
A husband-and-wife team, Mr. Wasik and Ms. Murphy blend science and history effectively, tracking rabies from references in "The Odyssey" to the work of vaccination pioneer Louis Pasteur (a hero of this book) to recent advances in bridging "the blood-brain barrier" through molecular biology. They also take fascinating side trips to other kinds of zoonosis, infectious diseases that cross species. They also lend credence to speculation that Edgar Allan Poe might have died of rabies; more than 50,000 people die of rabies each year -- still.
Small wonder, given the lethality of rabies. In the introduction is this vivid description: "It is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills virtually all of its hosts in most species, including humans. Fittingly, the rabies virus is shaped like a bullet: a cylindrical shell of glycoproteins and lipids that carries, in its rounded tip, a malevolent payload of helical RNA." Once it enters the nervous system, it creeps into the brain, stoking aggression, melting inhibition and stimulating salivation. Foaming at the mouth, a victim has mere days to live.
It's small wonder that rabies is the foundation of horror; small wonder that cultures produced fictional defenses against it in such notions and fictions as Cerberus, vampire novels and zombie movies.
While Mr. Wasik and Ms. Murphy celebrate how rabies has been beaten back over the years, they don't suggest it will ever be eradicated. They note that World Rabies Day is Sept. 28, the date Pasteur died in 1895. And they quote Charles Rupprecht, chief of the rabies unit at the Centers for Disease Control.
"An exquisite parasite," Dr. Rupprecht calls it, citing all the ways that rabies has perfectly adapted to its mammalian hosts. "We love to lick, we love to suck, we love to bite," he notes, and so rabies "exploits what mammals do naturally."
Habits die hard. So do viruses.
Carlo Wolff (carlowolff.com) is a writer and critic living in Cleveland.