Weird Wednesday: Rabies

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Rabies, despite how well-known it is, still has a lot of mystery and misconceptions surrounding it.  (Adam Skowronski/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Rabies, despite how well-known it is, still has a lot of mystery and misconceptions surrounding it. (Adam Skowronski/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Whatever you’re doing right now, stop it. Sit your ass down, because I am about to tell you about my favorite virus ever: Rabies lyssavirus, aka the ol’ foamy, aka The Madness, aka rabies.

This virus is freaking weird, man. It’s a delightful little package of protein and fear that will turn a beloved family pet into a raging anger beast, and a fully functional human being into a pile of spasming, pain-filled infected flesh. Forget swine flu. This shit’s wild.

Rabies, despite how well-known it is, still has a lot of mystery and misconceptions surrounding it, which I will happily clear up for you in this very ranty infodump. Buckle up!

First of all: history. It’s one of the oldest viruses in the world. How do we know? It’s part of the setup for a centuries-old Babylonian joke. A man is bitten by a mad dog and is healed by a doctor. The patient is so overjoyed that he tells the doctor that if he comes to his house, he’ll lavish him with gifts. The doctor accepts the offer, and the patient realizes he doesn’t want to deliver. He gives the doctor confusing directions (“Left on Right Street, Up on the downs” etc.) and the poor physician has to resort to asking an old woman on the corner, who gives similarly terrible directions. Eventually, the doctor gives up and goes home.

Yeah, the Babylonians were better at hanging their gardens than telling a joke.

Back to rabies. The virus has been around for so long that the concept of rabid animals is pretty solidly part of human’s collective cultural memory, to the point where it’s actually theorized that the primal myths for vampires and werewolves originated from the disease.

How does the rabies virus work, anyways? The common sequence seen in pop culture typically follows the lines of a bat biting an animal (usually a dog, sometimes a squirrel for comedic effect) the animal slowly deteriorating into a slobbering, maddening mess and then menacing society. Sometimes it takes an extra jump and bites a human, who then starts the zombie apocalypse, something something hydrophobia.

First of all: Bats can indeed contract and carry the disease, but they get infected at a lower rate than most mammals. Their main deal is that they can fly while infected, spreading the disease, and can be asymptomatic for a lot longer than most.

Secondly: While all mammals can contract the disease (thankfully, rabid alligators are currently a biological impossibility) in rodents, it’s pretty rare. Same goes for possums, weirdly enough.

Thirdly: Not all animals infected with rabies turn into a crazy rage-machine. Depending on the individual animal, they can either become paralytic (dumb) as the virus paralyses the body, and become sleepy and unresponsive. ‘‘Furious’’ rabies is the more commonly-depicted one, because watching some poor animal slowly die in a corner isn’t really good cinema material.

What happens when rabies gets into a body? Lots of stuff, of course, none of it nice. Rabies is passed through the saliva of a symptomatic creature, as well as the brain of cerebrospinal fluid– not the blood or other fluids. The virus infects the nervous system, creeping up the peripheral nerves at the rate of a centimeter a day. The host at this point may not have any symptoms, save for the bite itself, and a possible slight fever that disappears. It may take a year before the virus to fully incubate.

At this point, you can still save yourself. Sure, you have to go through a series of nasty shots in the peritoneal muscle, but it’s much preferable to what I’m about to describe next.

When the virus hits the spine, then it’s game over. The virus rapidly travels to the brain and replicates, multiplying and taking over the autonomic and somatic systems. The fever returns. The virus spreads to salivary glands and sheds (not enough to spread in humans, but the symptom is still there nonetheless.)

The host’s behavior becomes erratic. They may lash out, teeth gnashing, in a bizarre method that would keep the virus propagation in other animals. The throat seizes, and the host becomes terrified of bright lights, loud noises and water, as they are unable to swallow. They hallucinate, they rave. The muscles twitch. Within 48 hours, cardiac and pulmonary (lung) failure ensue. Hosts usually die in agony, choked on their own spit, or from meningitis, lung failure or heart failure.

It’s one of the deadliest viruses known to man, with a 99 percent fatality rate (something not even Ebola can boast.) While vaccines are available for animals and for post-bite humans (thanks, Louis Pasteur!) once they symptoms hit, then the only thing you can do is knock yourself out with a complicated medical coma and hope for the best, which is known as the Milwaukee Protocol. (And even then, it has only a 14 percent success rate, so don’t hedge your bets.)

The question arises: will rabies cause the zombie apocalypse? The answer: If it hasn’t already, then no. (I’d go into how zombies violate the laws of thermodynamics, but that’s for another column)

All in all: get your shots. Take your pets to get their shots. Don’t pet foam raccoons. Stay sane, and stay weird. See you next week, folks.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.

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