Rabies has horrified civilizations for thousands of years, ever since it became clear that the bite of an infected animal guaranteed a horrific death. Rabies derives from either the Sanskrit “rabhas” (to commit violence) or the Latin “rabere” (to wrath). Ancient Greeks referred to rabies as “lyssa” (violence). Currently, the virus that causes rabies belongs to the genus Lyssa Virus.

What are Rabies?

It is a fatal and contagious viral disease of dogs and other animals that is transmitted to humans via saliva and causes insanity and convulsions. Rabies is a preventable viral disease typically transmitted through an animal bite. The rabies virus infects mammals’ central nervous systems, causing brain disease and death. Most rabies cases recorded annually by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) occur in feral animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes; however, any mammal is susceptible to rabies.

The early history of rabies

Even in old times, it was recognized that the rabies virus could be transmitted through animal wounds. Several old literary works mention rabies, such as the paper by Aristotle (300 BC) that identifies rabies as a disorder that affects dogs and any other animal the dog attacks.
The owner of a dog exhibiting rabies symptoms such as excessive salivation was required to take precautions to prevent the dog from harming someone in early historical times.
In India, 3000 BCE, the deity of death was accompanied by a dog who served as his messenger. Every year, feral canines continue to kill 20,000 people today in India. In the Mosaic Esmuna Code of Babylon in 2300 B.C., Babylonians were required to pay a fine if their dog transmitted rabies to another person. This is the first written record of rabies causing mortality in both canines and humans.

The Roman scholar Celsus correctly hypothesized in the first century A.D. that the animal’s secretions transmitted rabies. He incorrectly suggested that holding the victim underwater would cure rabies. Those who did not perish succumbed to rabies. Other barbarous rabies treatments included searing the incisions with a heated poker and a “hair-of-the-dog” concoction. “similars” are used in homeopathic medicine, i.e., “like cures like.” The dog’s hair was placed on the incision or ingested by the patient. While the hair of the dog may alleviate a hangover, it does not affect rabies.

Prevention of rabies transmission

In the 18th century, countries such as Germany, France, and Spain passed laws mandating the killing of stray canines to reduce the risk of a vicious dog biting a human in the region. However, the public did not receive this well, and it needed to be enforced in most areas.
Due to an improved comprehension of canines and rabies transmission to urban populations, additional preventative measures such as quarantine and other health initiatives were introduced in the 19th century. Probably as a result of these measures, the number of humans infected with rabies decreased dramatically. By the turn of the 20th century, many regions were deemed virus-free.

Rabies Vaccination

In the 1880s, the first effective treatment for Rabies appeared. A French chemistry instructor Louis Pasteur was experimenting with poultry cholera when he discovered that virulent colonies exposed to the elements no longer caused disease. In addition, he observed that chickens immunized with this diminished or “attenuated strain” were immune to infection with new, virulent cultures. Next, Pasteur administered a weakened vaccine against anthrax to cattle. It worked! Then he turned his attention to rabies, the worldwide plague. Pasteur desired more time to purify his attenuated vaccine before administering it to himself, despite his initial tests on animals being very encouraging.

On July 6, 1885, a vicious dog attacked a nine-year-old child named Joseph Meister. A local physician treated Joseph’s wounds and informed his family that only Louis Pasteur could save him. After much persuasion, Pasteur consented only after consulting with two actual physicians, who concluded that Joseph was “a walking corpse.” Joseph received thirteen vaccinations in eleven days and recovered completely. The word filtered out, and patients began to arrive from all over the globe. More than 20,000 people received his post-exposure prophylactic vaccine nine years after Pasteur’s demise.

Current Management of Rabies

Even today, there is no known treatment for rabies once symptoms appear. Instead, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is the current treatment method for rabies exposure. This involves administering rabies immunoglobulin and vaccine shortly after exposure to the virus, followed by a 30-day series of injections.

PEP has a near-100 percent success rate when administered appropriately and promptly after rabies virus exposure. Consequently, there are now relatively few rabies cases among populations with access to adequate medical care. Each year, 95 percent of the 55,000 rabies cases occur in Asia and Africa, where medical care following exposure to the virus is often lacking.


The journey of Rabies through history unveils a remarkable evolution of understanding and control. From its ominous presence in ancient civilizations to the pioneering works of figures like Pasteur in the 19th century, humanity’s battle against this deadly virus has been marked by persistent research and medical breakthroughs. The modern era has witnessed significant advancements in rabies prevention and treatment, with widespread vaccination programs and improved medical interventions saving countless lives. However, challenges persist, particularly in regions with limited access to healthcare and education. As we reflect on the history of rabies, it becomes evident that our ongoing efforts to combat this ancient scourge are a testament to the resilience of scientific inquiry and the determination to safeguard both human and animal health in the face of adversity.

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