Here in the United States, rabies is something to be thought of mostly in terms of the routine vaccines that our pets get or in remembering the Walt Disney film Old Yeller. For most of us, it isn't a disease we've ever had personal exposure to, and yet it still has the ability to terrify, especially since it essentially remains a universally fatal disease once it's reached the brain. People are still dying from rabies, as a recent story from South Africa shows. And it's not just South Africa--an American soldier was bitten in Afghanistan eight months ago and died this August from rabies acquired from the bite. According to the news article, he was the "first active-duty American soldier to die from a rabies bite in more than 40 years." Rabies remains a terrifying disease to be on guard against.
Dog and bat bites are the most typical way that rabies is transmitted to humans (WHO), but other animals can and do carry rabies. Wasik and Murphy in their incredibly comprehensive Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus report on how raccoons were responsible for transmitting rabies in New York City in recent years.
Wasik and Murphy explore the history of rabies and how over the centuries the disease has helped to create lasting literary works and the myths of vampires, werewolfs, and even zombies. Nested around the analysis of great literature and pulp fiction are stories of outbreaks of rabies, the attempts to eradicate the disease and the life-saving work of the great Louis Pasteur and his Pasteur Institutes. The cultural history ends on the cautionary note of what happened in Bali when rabies, previously absent on the island, got a foothold. Wholesale slaughter of dogs occurred, while concerned individuals fought hard to curb the government's reactionary choice to kill instead of vaccinate. The ease with which people can become complacent only to react in a knee-jerk fashion after the fact is clear in the tales of Bali and the rabies outbreak and in Egypt with slaughter of pigs when swine flu was making its way around the globe--Wasik and Murphy do an excellent job of making these stories visceral for their readers.
Rabid isn't for the faint of heart or for the easily distracted, but it's an important work to read, especially if one is interested in seeing just how important routine vaccination is.
* for SV who loves plugs for other people's books*