Why are We no Longer Scared of Rabies?

Growing up in the UK in the 70s, there was one threat above all others, which preyed upon the fears of the public consciousness.  It was not the possibility of nuclear meltdown; it was not HIV—too early for that; it was not even the moral disintegration of society in the face of a potty-mouthed punk revolution.  No, what most scared every red-blooded Englishman was rabies.

There were fierce quarantine rules protecting the country.  No animal could arrive on these shores without first being caged for six months.  It was only the fact that we were an island nation that meant we hadn’t been overrun already.  Everyone knew that every four-legged critter on the mainland of Europe was infected; a carrier at best.  It had been part of the reason for resistance to join the EU in 1973 and to form closer ties in 1985; perhaps it was still in the minds of Leave voters in 2016?  Similar to the prospective invasion of our green and pleasant land in 1940, in the 1970s we were once again only a Channel’s width away from rabies-Armageddon.

The media fuelled this anxiety.  Every incidence of rabies was recorded in the popular press in graphic detail.  It was scarcely possible to turn on the TV without tuning into a government health warning or public information film about the risks of travelling to the continent.  My first ever trip abroad––to Calais aged 8––was entirely spoilt by the constant fear that I would be licked/chased/bitten by a demented rabid beast.  And the disease became the subject of several popular novels––Saliva by Walter Harris and The Rage by Jack Ramsey.


The culmination of all this hysteria was a BBC Scotland mini-series aired in 1983, called The Mad Death.  My memories of this series are hazy at best, but I have recollections of a frothy-mouthed feral fox hurling itself maniacally at the windscreen of a car, leaving a slimy residue of presumably festering contagious germs, waiting to infect the unwary, and also memories of the hallucinatory dream sequences of the infected victims, which seemed to involve a surprising amount of naked flesh and eroticism for a primetime show.  Thankfully, it is now possible to relive the horror and the excitement all over again, because BBC have released the three-part series for the first time since it’s original showing on DVD.

But then all the anxiety seemed to stop.  Did rabies simply just go away?  Or is it just that we have even scarier things to worry about these days?

© The Mudskipper

Image © smerikal

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