When Did Rabies Shots Start?

Pasteur's rabies-infected rabbit tissues later rendered people and dogs immune with the development of the vaccine.
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Before French chemist Louis Pasteur, 1822-1895, developed his rabies vaccine, people and animals who contracted that devastating disease of the central nervous system were doomed to a slow, agonizing and certain death. His discovery that people could be rendered immune to rabies by being injected with the organism responsible for causing it ushered in the modern era of vaccines, revolutionizing medicine.

Dogs Immunized First

When Pasteur's work on developing a rabies vaccine began in 1880, he was responding to an increasingly urgent public health concern, that of rabies being transmitted to people by infected dogs. After a Paris vet sent Pasteur tissue samples from two rabid dogs, he used them to infect lab animals to study the progression of the disease. However, the lengthy incubation period from exposure to the appearance of the first symptoms slowed down his research so much that he resorted to isolating the most lethal strains of the virus and injecting them directly into rabbits' brains. In May 1884, in a presentation to the French Academy of Sciences, Pasteur announced that he had successfully immunized dogs against rabies, and his findings were accepted.

Human Rabies Victim: Pasteur's Ethical Dilemma

Pasteur considered injecting himself with rabies so he could test the efficacy of his vaccine on a human subject, but plans changed in July 1885, when the mother of 9-year-old Jacob Meister pleaded for his help. Pasteur knew that without the vaccine, Jacob, who had been mauled by a rabid dog two days earlier, would definitely die. Pasteur also knew that he couldn't promise the vaccine would save Jacob's life. If the boy died, Pasteur, who wasn't a medical doctor, might even be accused of killing him. With "acute and harrowing anxiety" about the possible grim outcomes, Pasteur went ahead anyway, injecting a series of 14 shots containing live rabies virus into the child. Jacob survived.

Pasteur Becomes an American Hero

On December 2, 1885, a rabid dog went on a rampage in Newark. N.J., biting six children before being shot. At the time, Pasteur wasn't a household name in the U.S., but news of his rabies vaccine had been reported in American media. In a paper published in April 1998 in the "American Historical Review," historian Bert Hansen relates that someone cabled Pasteur asking if he could do anything to help and he cabled back, "Send children immediately." A fundraising campaign was launched to pay for the ocean passage of the four boys, aged 5 to 13, deemed to have been most severely bitten. After being vaccinated, none of the boys developed rabies. In the eyes of the American public, Pasteur was elevated to secular sainthood, and organizations devoted to furthering his work sprang up all over the country.

Rabies Prevalence Then and Now

The records of the Institut Pasteur in Paris provide an indication of how big the rabies problem was in Europe in Pasteur's time. By March 1, 1886, Pasteur had treated 350 people, reporting only one failure, which he attributed to the fact that rabies had already invaded the patient's nervous system when the vaccine was administered. A few months later, Pasteur presented the French Academy of Sciences with 726 more successful case histories. Today, thanks to vaccination programs, rabies has all but been wiped out in domestic animals throughout the developed world, although the disease still persists in wildlife. Sadly, people in the developing world haven't been as fortunate. According to the World Health Organization, every year, more than 55,000 die of rabies, mostly in Asia and Africa, and 40 percent of those infected by rabid animals, mostly dogs, are under the age of 15.