Thank You Louis Pasteur

Yesterday was the 130th anniversary of Louis Pasteur's rabies vaccination of Joseph Meister--a day that everyone should recognize and celebrate. Though Jenner's smallpox was the first vaccine and Pasteur's called his rabies version "vaccine" to honor Jenner, Pasteur--in my view--is on the highest echelon of our race. 

Why I elevate Pasteur to that level has to do with the fact that not only did he discover the rabies vaccine but his contributions to the germ theory of disease (I'm not even counting  his contributions to stereochemistry) gave the entire field a green light to hypothesize, innovate, and advance. Such an achievement's ramifications are incalculable. 

To put it simply, I just would like to say thank you to Louis Pasteur for his recalcitrant, intransigent pursuit of the truth and that I am embarrassed that some members of our species have returned to the primitive status that humans have wallowed in for most of our history by shunning vaccination and pasteurization. 

The debt we owe Pasteur is not something repayable. 

New Rabies Strain Still Can't Create Zombies

A sadly common question I get asked too frequently is "What virus can turn someone into a zombie?" The answer is that no virus can turn one into a zombie anymore than it can turn one into unicorn. However, if I were to name a disease that causes a person to behave in a manner that might be zombie-like, I would say it is the illness caused by the bat-borne rabies virus. For a great historical treatment of the mystique surrounding the illness see Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus.  

Rabies is a disease that evokes, to those who are familiar with it, fear and was an infection that the great Louis Pasteur trained his genius mind on to formulate a vaccine: the subject of my favorite children's book. In the US, just two human cases occurred in 2010 and most animal cases are in wildlife, though it is important to remember that cats are one of the more common domestic species to contract rabies (see this video of a zombie-like rabid cat). Once infection has set in, only 5 people are known to have survived despite the Herculean Milwaukee Protocol that has been developed in recent years. Rabies in humans, because of its severity and transmission characteristics (blood/body fluid) in humans it is rarely transmitted human-to-human, though organ transplantation is one potential route. 

So with the news of a new rabies strain being found in New Mexico is there a possibility that this could be akin the rage virus of 28 Days Later fame? 

Not a chance.

New lineages of viruses evolve naturally and rarely confer wholly new transmission characteristics. What is likely is that since the ultimate reservoir for rabies are the exceedingly prolific bat species, we know only a small fraction about all the strains of rabies that circulate amongst them. This poor rabid fox likely came into contact with a bat and acquired the new strain providing an opportunity to study the virus.

Sorry to disappoint but no zombie apocalypse in the offing...yet. 




If There's A Raccoon in Your Bed, Call A Doctor

When I heard that a raccoon attacked a Massachusetts woman in her bed, I immediately assumed the raccoon to rabid--and it was. 

As a virus that infects the brain, rabies has the ability to change its host's behavior. As rabies is spread via saliva, it makes perfect sense, in evolutionary terms, for the virus to prompt some change in behavior in order to facilitate saliva exposure in potential new hosts. Hence, rabid animals "foam at the mouth" and become aggressive. See the book Rabid for a great history of the disease.

A raccoon's natural proclivity is to avoid human contact. For a raccoon, the most commonly reported wildlife reservoir for rabies in the US, to pounce into a bed and attack a woman is an unequivocal behavior change consistent with rabies. 

In the US, human deaths from rabies seldom occur given the ability of those exposed to access effective post-exposure prophylaxis which consists of the vaccine (thank you Louis Pasteur) and immune globulin. For those who develop symptoms, a fatal course is to be expected (unless the Milwaukee Protocol is initiated and is efficacious). 

Among the pantheon of infectious diseases, rabies has a special place in my heart as it was the children's book detailing Pasteur's work to develop the rabies vaccine that first captured my interest in the field.