Last month, a rabid fox viciously attacked an Ithaca woman in her front yard, with the entire confrontation captured on a home surveillance camera. For a full minute she fended off the fox.
Folks, the woman looks like she’s practicing 70-yard field goals with this fox, yet it keeps coming back, latching on to whatever it can fit in its mouth. Its haunches are raised, every hair is standing on end, and its tail puffs up like a fur balloon. But the oddity is more than that.
This fox bites and latches and is thrown off, then bites and latches again, and again, and again. It weaves its narrow head beneath the woman’s flailing feet and arms and bites. The bites aren’t for feeding or self-defense. It just wants to tear and rent flesh. Beyond defense or reason, it keeps coming back.
That is rabies.
Eventually the fox flees after the woman delivers a last hard kick and a neighbor comes in swinging a stick. Later on, the animal was caught, euthanized, and tested: positive for rabies.
In the United States, raccoons, foxes, bats, and skunks are the most common hosts of the rabies virus in the wild, although the disease quickly transmits to domestic animals like dogs, cats, and bovines.
There is something in rabies that humans fear on a guttural, evolutionary level. It’s a disease that lurked on fringes of our ancestors’ comforting campfires. It was horrifying and deadly that entire gods were created to explain it. That’s no joke. The Ancient Greeks believed Lyssa, the goddess or demon of mindless fury, created the disease. As Roman culture absorbed the Greeks, the demon’s name changed to Ira (as in irate), Furor (as in fury), or Rabies (as in…well, you get it).
Probably the most famous appearance of Lyssa is in the tale of Hercules. Once the demi-god completed his 12 Labors, a jealous Hera sent Lyssa to drive Hercules into a mindless rage. This rabid hero then slaughtered his wife and children, only waking up from his delirium with their bodies piled at his feet.
Rabies, Found in a Classic Film
It has been a common plot device in movies for a century. Remember Old Yeller? In the last couple decade mutated strains of rabies have been installed as fictional causes of fictional zombies, precisely because such symptoms aren’t entirely fictional.
About halfway through to To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s a short scene that remains as terrifying today as it was in the 1960s.
After a report of commotion up the street, the Finch’s nanny Calpurnia rushes out of the house with Scout and Jem in tow, and all three squint at the clumsy, snarling shape making its way up the road. A medium-sized dog, but a dog snapping at the air and rocking back on its hind legs. It only takes a moment for Calpurnia to realize exactly what they’re looking at and she says, “Scout. Jem, come on inside.” The calm authority in her voice wavers just a little as she ushers the children in.
Back then they called it a mad dog. Today, we’d call it a rabid dog. And Calpurnia had every reason to be terrified of that dog. Although we’ve had an effective vaccine for rabies since 1885, it was expensive (in the thousands) and sometimes had severe side effects (vaccines take time to perfect, see: 2020-today). And the larger the viral load, the more virulent the strain. When it comes to rabies, a snarling dog frothing at the mouth and biting the air was the worst of the worst.
Moments later, Jem and Scout’s father Atticus Finch shows up with the sheriff. The sheriff tucks his rifle butt into his shoulder, then thinks better of it and hands it to Atticus who, we find out, was a legendary Maycomb County marksman. Here too is another element of horror. The sheriff gave Atticus the shot because they couldn’t chance missing. Missing would attract the dog’s attention and bring it to their feet.
Watch the clip below to see if Atticus missed…
Is Rabies the Worst Disease in Human History?
It’s hard to define what’s makes any disease the “worst” disease. Is it symptom severity, the mortality rate, communicability, a disease’s ability to mutate..? The list goes on. Rabies is awful in ALL those categories, yet rabies is awful is another category all its own: irony.
World Health Organization: “Once clinical symptoms appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal.”
Also the World Health Organization: “Human rabies is a 100% vaccine-preventable disease.”
Although absolutely fatal (or in the realm of 99.99999% fatal), rabies is one of the few viral diseases against which our vaccines are absolutely effective. To compare, a measles series is 97% effective, and a polio series is 99.5% effective. Also, unlike most viral diseases, rabies is a surefire death sentence without early intervention.
Once those symptoms appear, no vaccine can help you. The disease has killed millions over the centuries and in all that time, only 14 people have survived without a vaccine. Of those 14, half suffered severe life-long side effects.
We know the virus inside and out and have the cure at the ready. Every year 59,000 people die from it. In all but 2 or 3 cases, those deaths occur outside the United States. Why the discrepancy? Cost. Rabies treatment can cost anywhere from $200 to $10,000.
The antiquated name for rabies, hydrophobia, centers on its most familiar symptom: a sudden fear of water, an inability to swallow, and constant salivation or “foaming at the mouth.” In the earlier part of the 20th century, it was fashionable to categorize hydrophobia as psychosomatic. Some even went a step further and accused the Pasteur Institute, which had produced the rabies vaccine, of creating a public health panic for profit.
And then, as in now, those accusations were mindless bullshit coughed up by a science-illiterate citizenry with no reason or right broadcast an opinion on vaccination. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that a flood of fools is hard to stop once started in earnest.
Bedford Daily Mail. 4/17/1908
In truth, the actual correlation between hydrophobia and rabies is terrifying in its effectiveness.
For millennia, rabies has thrived in mammals, mostly through a handful of adaptations. In most cases, after the initial symptoms (nausea, excitability, sporadic paralysis of all or part of the body, confusion), victims find themselves uncontrollably agitated and unable to swallow liquid, even feeling ill at the sight of it.
In this transmission stage, the virus collects in the salivary glands. The sudden, inexplicable rage is to coax a host into biting other mammals and spread the virus. Hydrophobia increases the production of saliva (“foam”) and dramatically increases the viral load in the bite.
Think about that: rabies incubates in our bodies, burns our gray matter as food to grow stronger and more numerous, then the diseases takes over what’s left of our minds, so it can find another host and reproduce again.
For those that want to see how the effects of rabies firsthand in a human host, here’s a link to a video from the US Army Medical Service. This 1955 film allowed medical personnel to witness the disease firsthand for easier identification in the field. It is a disturbing video, folks, and I hesitated sharing the link. I acquiesced, figuring if you’ve come this far in the article, you’d probably be willing to go a little further.
Want to Know More?
Just a single article here, folks. If you’ve ever wanted to see how foolishness springs eternal, look no further than “Not Hydrophobia. Just Imagination” from The Bedford Daily Mail, April 17th, 1908.