Before the world feared leprosy, polio and even smallpox, the world feared rabies.
Rabies was first documented in 4 BCE and so for the last 2400 years, it has terrified people worldwide with this one fact: a bite of a rabid animal ensures one of the worst deaths imaginable. People didn't fully understand the disease back then, but they did know that.
Over the centuries, cures were trialled, and all failed. Everything from holding the victim underwater to burning their wounds with a hot poker to ingesting the hairs of the rabid dog. Perhaps the most interesting 'cure' for rabies were madstones; often hairballs found in the stomachs of ruminants such as cows and goats, which were thought to draw the madness out of the bite wound. In 1805 in America, madstones were more valuable than rubies, costing up to $2,000.
It wasn't until the 1880's when the first real sign of hope appeared. French biologist Louis Pasteur made the discovery of a possible rabies vaccine, developed from his work in preventing cholera in chickens and anthrax in cattle. After successfully trialling the anti-rabies vaccine in dogs, Pasteur turned to his first human patient: a 9-year-old boy who’d been attacked by a rabid dog. The boy was in a serious condition and there was little doubt he would die if nothing was done. After receiving Pasteur's post-exposure vaccinations, 13 jabs over 11 days, the boy never developed rabies symptoms, and Pasteur became an international hero.
Now with a vaccine, the fight against rabies really began.
At the time of Pasteur's death, 9 years later, over 200,000 people had been given the post-exposure vaccinations and not long after, countries began to put protection measures in place that actually worked. Domestic animal vaccines became routine and suspected cases were actively reported and quarantined. By the turn of the 20th century, areas such as Central Europe, which had been a hotspot for rabies, significantly improved.
So, why is rabies still a problem?
The world's poorest and most remote communities have been left behind. Even in today's modern society, geographical and economic barriers prevent people in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America from accessing effective preventative measures. Every year, the disease still claims about 59,000 of our most vulnerable people, many of whom are children. Even then, research suggests one third of rabies cases worldwide are not reported, invisible to conventional reporting at hospitals.
With a solution that actually works, we're fighting to change this. After 2,000 years, we're calling time on rabies. Will you join us?
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