We have already blogged about Rabies, and the paranoia invoked by this terrible almost invariably fatal illness.
Part of the terror is the long incubation period between the bite of an infected animal and the onset of the disease, anywhere from 5d to 2 years later.
Before Louis Pasteur’s investigation and research in the late 1800’s, there was nothing a potentially infected victim could do except wait to develop this terrifying disease.
In the 1880s, Louis Pasteur and others proved that Rabies was an infectious disease that could be transmitted between species by infected saliva and blood.
They had also realized that Rabies was neurotrophic and targeted the spinal cord and brain. They could dissect an infected animal, remove the spinal cord, and infect other animals by the inoculation of this material.
Pasteur went on to find that strains of the virus become less lethal (“virulent”) when transmitted from dog to monkey or between other species, and that the virulence diminished with each transmission.
He also found that when sections of rabid spinal cord was suspended in dry air the virulence gradually diminished with time.
This is how Pasteur produced the first attenuated vaccine, and successfully immunized 50 dogs against rabies.
Then on Monday 6 July 1885, Joseph Meister, aged nine, was brought to him from Alsace having been bitten by a rabid dog just 2 days before.
With some reluctance, Pasteur was persuaded by Drs Vulpian and Grancher of the Académie de Médecine to give Dr Grancher the emulsion from the cord of a rabbit that had died of rabies on 21 June and kept in dry air for 15 days, to innoculate the child.
The boy was then given 13 further inoculations with samples form progressively fresher (more virulent) infected spinal cord over 10 days. Pasteur waited every day for news of the boy from his doctos. Finally when the boy had shown no signs of hydrophobis after three months, it seemed likely that the innoculations had averted the dreaded disease, and Pasteur announced that the vaccine had worked.
Not long after on the other side of the Atlantic in Newark (New Jersey) four boys had been bitten by a dog suspected to be rabid. A well-known physician, Dr. William O’Gorman had heard of Pasteur’s work with Meister, and recommended that the children be sent to him for treatment:
“ I have such confidence in the preventive forces of inoculation by mitigated virus that were it my misfortune to be bitten by a rabid dog, I would board the first Atlantic steamer, go straight to Paris and, full of hope, place myself immediately in the hands of Pasteur…. If the parents be poor, I appeal to the medical profession and to the humane of all classes to help send these poor children where there is almost a certainty of prevention and cure. Let us prove to the world that we are intelligent enough to appreciate the advance of science and liberal and humane enough to help those who cannot help themselves..“
– New York Herald Tribune, December 4, 1885
This appeal to individuals in the United States, for those who desperately needed this medical treatment, as well as to philanthropists who recognized the global need to implement Pasteur’s new discoveries as standard medical procedure, created an uproar throughout the country.
The four boys were sent to Paris accompanied by the one mother and a reporter. Their story became a media sensation. It seemed that the entire nation was following the boys, who finally returned home in January 1886 cured. The papers announced them as “heroes” are arranged for them to tour and appear in major American cities.
The international publicity and donations resulting from this and other similar cases led to the foundation of the Pasteur Institute in 1888. Patients came from all around the world for treatment.
By 1911, the Philadelphia drug company H. K. Mulford was producing a rabies vaccine kit, using the Pasteur method, that could be shipped directly to doctors and was simple enough that “physicians who have had no previous experience may successfully apply it”.
Watch the video below to find out more about rabies and post-exposure vaccination, which is 100% effective if administered right away: