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WSJ Book Review: Going Viral

It begins with a bite. The animal attacks, foaming at the mouth, and strikes again and again, seemingly invincible. Tiny organisms in the beast's saliva bind to receptors on your muscle cells and replicate. This may take days or even years. They migrate to the nervous system and travel into the brain. At this point, you may suffer fever, nausea and vomiting, as well as a burning or prickling sensation at the site of infection. Collections of particles called Negri bodies are left behind in brain cells. This leads to encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. You experience hydrophobia, a fear of water. Anxiety and seizures follow. You may see your caretakers as enemies and spit into your hands in order to throw your saliva at them. If you are male, you experience increased sexual desire, erections and orgasms. Untreated, the progression inevitably culminates in paralysis and death.

The tiny yet vicious culprit is the subject of Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy's "Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus." Mr. Wasik, a senior editor at Wired, and Ms. Murphy, a veterinarian, chronicle more than two millennia of myths and discoveries about rabies and the animals that transmit it, including dogs, bats and raccoons.

The tale, as Mr. Wasik and Ms. Murphy write, "is not for the weak-kneed." Throughout history, rabies has been a source of abundant fear. In one prophecy from Mesopotamia, a god threatens Babylon with plagues, "the last of these being rabies." In 19th-century England, rabies panic seized the streets, even though a person was 10 times more likely to die from being murdered. "Reports of allegedly mad dogs studded the newspapers," the authors write. "Stories of actual hydrophobic expiry were granted full columns. . . . Neighborhood councils formed to beat back the scourge of feral dogs." Mr. Wasik and Ms. Murphy suggest that the rise of pet dogs in the middle class provided many with personal knowledge of rabies, shocking them with the sight of domesticated dogs reverting "to a wild nature."

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