Rabies Virus

This negative-stained TEM shows rabies virions (at 70,000x magnification) purified from an infected cell culture.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, Wired senior editor Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy recount the fascinating history of the ubiquitous and menacing rabies virus, writing:

It is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills nearly 100 percent 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. On entering a living thing, it eschews the bloodstream, the default route of nearly all viruses but a path heavily guarded by immuno-protective sentries. Instead, like almost no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one or two centimeters per day (on average) through the axoplasm, the transmission lines that conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. Once inside the brain, the virus works slowly, diligently, fatally to warp the mind, suppressing the rational and stimulating the animal. Aggression rises to fever pitch; inhibitions melt away; salivation increases. The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness — because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.

If it sounds like a horror movie, we should not be surprised, for it is a scenario bound up into our very concept of horror. Rabies is a scourge as old as human civilization, and the terror of its manifestation is a fundamental human fear, because it challenges the boundary of humanity itself. That is, it troubles the line where man ends and animal begins.

In spite of Louis Pasteur’s success in pioneering the rabies vaccine (more than two centuries ago), 55,000 people still die from rabies globally each year — that’s one death from rabies every ten minutes.

Reference: Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.
Photo Credit
: Frederick Murphy at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas.

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