Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Rabies “Racket”

May 18th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Healthy skepticism is obviously the lifeblood of a functioning society, yet there are moments when distrust of The Man can have dire consequences. That is too often the case in the public-health sphere, which we reckon makes sense—the notion of injecting ourselves with foreign agents is terrifying, especially since it’s so hard to observe how those agents act inside the body. And so recent history has been peppered with controversies in which medical advances have been reviled as dangerous schemes, based on little more than gossip and conjecture.

Decades before this whole unpleasant smackdown, for example, there was a similarly heated controversy over the rollout of a mass-produced rabies vaccine in the United States. The spat seems quaint now, given that the canine vaccine obviously worked so well—once depressingly common, the disease formerly known as “hydrophobia” now kills just one or two Americans per year. Yet as the vaccine went wide during the tail end of the Great Depression, the forces of fear did their best to stop the progress. No less an authority than House and Garden magazine agreed, terming the nation’s efforts to vaccinate dogs “one of the cheapest and most dangerous rackets in the history of medicine.” And the Pittsburgh Press took delight in slamming veterinarians for insisting that dogs be vaccinated as a matter of course:

There is no doubt that some of the manufacturers of vaccine are still trying to push the product and even to whip up hysteria that will lead to compulsory vaccination, and it seems that here is where the veterinary profession could itself a good turn.

It takes little reasons to recognize that if fewer dogs are being sold there are fewer potential patients for the veterinarians. It seems that any continuation of an attempt to push a vaccine which has been held valueless by an eminent scientist after a thorough investigating is extremely foolish if, as seems probably, it is hurting the breeding of dogs.

None of this implies that Big Medicine’s claims should always be taken at face value—far from it, in fact. But it does us little good to always make the knee-jerk assumption that the profit motive and solid public-health policy are mutually exclusive.

(Image of Louis Pasteur removing a rabid bunny brain via The Open University)


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2 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    Unfortunately, there is still a lot of veterinary skepticism floating around on the web.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: Those vets should be forced to learn the history of the disease’s decline. If they can come up with a better explanation for how we tamed rabies, I’d love to hear it.