B.C. rabies death revives interest — and fear — in age-old disease

The ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Greeks were wary of its telltale symptoms. It claimed the life of one of Canada's governors general. The disease is a "scourge as old as human civilization" write Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, authors of  Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus. So when a Parksville, B.C., man died from rabies on July 13, there was overwhelming interest surrounding his shocking death, triggering a deeper, primordial fear of the virus.According to a 1988 paper in the Canadian Journal of Veterinary Medicine on the history of rabies in Canada by Richard Rosatte, incidents were first reported in the colonial history of the country during the late 1700s in Quebec. Rabies claimed Charles Lennox, governor general of Canada, who died after he was bitten by a rabid fox during a tour of Upper and Lower Canada in 1819. Wasik and Murphy describe his agonizing ordeal: unable to drink, terrified by the sound of water and ravaged by fever. Victims at this time faced certain death. A major shift came when French microbiologist Louis Pasteur and his colleague Emile Roux produced the first rabies vaccine in 1885.As the majority of cases prior to 1945 involved domestic dogs, the introduction of effective vaccination of domestic animals during the first half of the century in Canada led to a dramatic decline in human cases. Today, the majority of human deaths related to rabies are attributed to areas of the world without widespread, systematic vaccination programs. Modern-day incidentsIn the U.S. and Canada, modern outbreaks of the disease have largely taken place within wildlife populations of foxes, skunks, raccoons and bats. Human deaths are uncommon.In fact, Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, has made clear this week's death is "extremely rare."There have been only two B.C.-originated rabies deaths in the province since 1924; a third rabies death in Vancouver involved an infection originating in Alberta. The little brown bat is on ...Read more

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