Relax — rabies is good news!

"Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus," by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (Viking)

“Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus,” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (Viking)

On Feb. 14, The Post ran a story about a young woman who had been bitten by a rabid fox in Northwest Washington’s Rock Creek Park.

That might sound like alarming news, but it’s what came next that still has us shaking our heads — though not in a crazy, foaming-at-the-mouth kind of way:

“Tuesday’s attack was bad news for the fox, which was later captured by D.C. animal control officers and put down, and for the victim, who has to get a series of rabies shots. But it was good news to city officials, who saw it as confirmation that the District’s environment is improving, making it more inviting to wildlife, even an occasional sick one.”

Call it “The bright side of rabies!” Turns out the virus has been getting a bad rap for centuries.

I contacted Bill Wasik, who co-wrote a cultural history of rabies last year called “Rabid” (Viking). An editor at Wired, he told me that our fear of the disease is as old as civilization itself. “There are references to it in some of the very earliest Sumerian and Akkadian texts,” he said. “You can find it, both literally and metaphorically, in the ancient Greek tragedies.”

Having grown up in Gaithersburg, he didn’t think a rabid fox in Rock Creek Park was “good news,” but he did acknowledge that “we’ve always been afraid of rabies far out of proportion to the actual number of people it kills.” Part of that exaggerated anxiety, he said, stems from the quick and horrible progression of the disease. “Once you begin to develop symptoms, it’s nearly 100 percent fatal. Also, the animal mode of transmission makes it monstrous to us.”

There is good news, though: “Widespread vaccination of dogs over the decades has eliminated the canine strain of the virus from the United States. Violent encounters with rabid wildlife can be treated with a vaccine administered after the bite, and it’s nearly 100 percent effective at preventing death.”

In fact, the disease is now so rare among humans that most of us develop our sense of it from literature. “It’s fascinating to see how it changes across eras, between different cultures,” Wasik said. “In the ‘Iliad,’ the medical term for rabies (lyssa) appears as a sort of insensate animal anger that goads the heroes to acts of valor on the battlefield. In 20th-century American literature, killing the rabid dog often appears as a symbol of manhood, as if the hero is standing up to the depredations of the natural world. In pop culture today, it’s hard not to see our zombie and vampire films as being distinctly rabid in origin. They’re diseases that spread through bites and cause their hosts to become mad with animal rage. Doesn’t that sound familiar?”

Here are a few favorite novels to sink your teeth into during your next stroll through Rock Creek Park:

  • “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. Atticus shoots a rabid dog in the street.
  • “Old Yeller,” by Fred Gipson. After Old Yeller gets infected by a rabid wolf, young Travis must shoot his beloved dog.
  • “Rant,” by Chuck Palahniuk. A serial killer tries to infect as many people as he can with rabies. It’s a comedy. (Attention D.C. Animal Control: You’ll love it!)
  • “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston. After a rabid dog bites Janie’s husband, she’s forced to shoot him in self-defense.
  • Q & A,”  by Vikas Swarup. A young boy in India dies because he can’t afford treatment for rabies.
  • “Of Love and Other Demons,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A 12-year-old girl is bitten by a rabid dog.
  • “Cujo,” by Stephen King. Sorry, can’t even think about this one or I won’t sleep for days.

charlesr@washpost.com

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