Thursday, September 13, 2012

Fighting the virus carried by Man's best friend

Man's best friend the dog, is the most common carrier of history's most dreaded virus: rabies. Although very few deaths occur from rabies in the US thanks to post-exposure vaccination, fifty thousand people die worldwide from this horrid disease. A raging and innovative virus, it does not travel through the bloodstream (where it might be detected by our immune systems) but travels slowly but surely through the nervous system to drive us quite literally crazy before death.

The preventative vaccination of our dog population has not prevented rabies in the US but given us the proverbial buffer between this disease and the human population. In the US raccoons and bats are still common culprits that serve as a vector between the virus and our vulnerable nervous systems. Humans are considered an accidental exposure in this disease as we, personally, rarely spread it to others before our demise if we are infected. A rabid, sharp toothed creature on the other hand does a much better job at keeping the virus alive--infecting many before it dies a grisly death.

Many of the most lethal diseases are zoonotic, they originate in animals and then cross from species to species. Measles came from a disease in cattle, influenza from pigs, smallpox from rodents, the plague and typhus from the rat. "With most zoonotic leaps in disease, animal contact is the spark, but urbanization is the bone-dry tinder" (Wasik and Murphy, 71)

As an emergency nurse, I gave many doses of post-exposure rabies vaccine. Yes, I knew that the disease was brutal and always fatal. (Since I last administered the vaccine, some rare people have survived with the help of modern medicine) I did not fully appreciate the bravery that Louis Pasteur (he, of the pasteurization fame) and his assistants as they risked their lives, literally, to obtain serum from the jaws of salivating rabid dogs to make the vaccine. It is said they kept a gun handy, so that if one of the three was bit, his friend/assistant could shoot him quickly before the disease ravaged him mad. A virus too small for the scientist to see under the microscope--yet he was convinced he could make a vaccine for this unseen killer. The lives that Frenchman has saved!

After the news release of the news (at the turn of the 20th century) that there was a vaccine for this dreaded disease, three American boys in New Jersey were bit by a rabid dog. The news of their plight was in the newspapers, to be facing certain death when a vaccine was across the ocean. Many readers sent in money that enabled the boys to journey to Monsieur Pasteur's lab to be cured. Am I jaded in wondering if the public would be able to mount such a campaign to effect a cure for three such American youth today?

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