Viral bloodlust

By Jonathan Knight VAMPIRE legends were made up to explain the bizarre behaviour of rabid men, claims a Spanish neurologist. The symptoms of rabies match many of the attributes ascribed to vampires, and stories of vampirism became common in eastern Europe in the early 18th century, a time when rabies was sweeping through the region. Vampires are said to roam at night, sometimes appearing in the form of dogs, wolves or bats. They attack people and animals, and often drink their victims’ blood. They are also reputed to shun light and mirrors and have insatiable sexual appetites. Juan Gómez-Alonso of the Xeral Hospital in Vigo says he happened to see a film about vampires shortly after reading a study of viruses that infect the brain. “I was shocked by the similarities between vampirism and rabies,” he says. After searching the historical literature for references to vampires and medical accounts of rabies cases, Gómez-Alonso concludes in the current Neurology (vol 51, p 856) that the similarities are too close to be coincidental. The first symptoms of rabies, which include loss of appetite, fever and fatigue, can be confused with those of flu. But the virus soon begins to attack the central nervous system, and in the final stages before death it can cause agitation and dementia. In severe cases, called furious rabies, the victim can become violent and animal-like. In particular, muscle spasms in the face and neck can give the victim the look of an angry dog. During these attacks, the victim cannot swallow and sometimes vomits blood. Bright light, water and mirrors can all trigger the spasms. Some victims are overcome by violent impulses which lead them to attack and bite people. Men with the disease may engage in extensive sexual activity or get painful erections that last for several days. Rabies is seven times as common among men as women, and most vampires were said to be men. Gómez-Alonso also found evidence of a major rabies epidemic among dogs and wolves between 1721 and 1728 in Hungary, roughly the time and place where vampire legends first became common. The presence of animals and people exhibiting the same symptoms would explain the stories of vampires changing their form. And the rabies theory also accounts for the legend that being bitten by a vampire can turn you into one. Similar stories of blood-drinking undead occur in many cultures, says Timothy Tangherlini, a folklorist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He believes the legends that evolved into modern vampire tales may have been around for many centuries. But 18th-century eastern Europeans may well have seen the frightening symptoms of rabies and incorporated them into existing folklore,
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