Monday, June 29, 2015

Pasteur and Rabies

Louis Pasteur
On July 6, 1885, Louis Pasteur cured a human rabies patient for the first time in known history.

Until then, getting bit by a rabid animal led to ghastly illness and almost certain death.  

(Pasteur also is known for his work identifying germs, developing pasteurization processes to kill bacteria in milk and wine and forcing surgeons to wash their hands and instruments before operating on patients.  He did a lot of good in his day.)

In fact, the rabies treatment came late in Pasteur's career, following work that led to the development of vaccines for anthrax, tuberculosis, cholera and smallpox. 

In the rabies case, Pasteur had extracted nerve tissue from infected rabbits and then dried the tissue to weaken the virus it contained. 

One hundred thirty years ago, Pasteur's vaccine was given to a nine-year-old boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog. It was a gutsy move by a non-physician scientist, but it worked.  The boy survived, which was remarkable in a time when such a bite was a mortal event.  

Rabies Today  

Developed countries have virtually eliminated rabies with the broad vaccination of pets.   There are still occasional rabies cases -- like the coyote bite that infected a New Jersey man late this spring -- but effective treatments are readily available.

Unfortunately, less developed countries have had to focus on other issues first. 

An April report by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control said that domestic dog bites cause more than 99 percent of all human rabies deaths, which it estimated at almost 59,000 annually.   

The deaths are clustered in Africa and Asia, particularly in India, and are especially unfortunate at a time when vaccinations and treatments are available to eradicate the disease. 

The group has quantified the losses in the hope of galvanizing efforts in poor countries to vaccinate pets and treat human victims.

After 130 years, it seems about time. 

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