- Mad Dogs and Meerkats: A History of Resurgent Rabies in Southern Africa
Long fragmented by essays in scientific and historical journals, rabies history has received monographic treatment recently in Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain, 1830–2000 (New York: Palgrave, 2007) and now in Karen Brown’s Mad Dogs and Meerkats. Connected by their subject matter, they are also related by the fact that South Africa was a colony of the British Empire, one of the principal disseminators of the rabies virus around the world. Both monographs stand on their own, for sure, but they also raise hope for a global [End Page 499] history of rabies, once historians produce a critical mass of research on rabies elsewhere in the world.
Following a fine Introduction mapping the entire book, Brown’s first chapter surveys the early history of rabies in South Africa. With little evidence for its presence before the 1890s, and given the difficulty of interpreting what traces remain, Brown concludes that any appearance of the disease before the end of the nineteenth century has escaped detection so far.
Chapter 2 recounts an 1893 outbreak in Port Elizabeth, a major seaport and population center of what is now the Republic of South Africa. Apparently introduced by an imported English show-dog, the virus raged through the colony for two years but did not establish itself in the region’s wildlife. Brown provides an engrossing account of the social, political, and scientific ripples the virus’s unwelcome arrival made.
In Chapter 3, Brown moves to Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia, and an outbreak occurring between 1901 and 1913, with dogs, again, the primary vector. Apparently a virus of the European type, as was the Port Elizabeth strain, it claimed considerably more victims than did the earlier outbreak and provoked a more complex response. With English, German, and Portuguese imperialists scrambling for power and wealth in southern Africa during these years, the Southern Rhodesia outbreak was singularly volatile and violent.
Chapter 4 recounts an outbreak of rabies in northeastern South Africa, among meerkats, or mongooses, beginning in the late 1920s. (The taxonomy of these animals is as complex as is the looseness of vernacular names applied to them.) Caused by an indigenous strain of the rabies virus, this outbreak is especially important because most African outbreaks so far identified have come from an imported urban strain or strains. Responding to rabies in wildlife and in rural settings rather than to rabid dogs in urban settings required novel policies and practices. As inventive as these were, they resulted, nonetheless, in frustration and ineffectiveness paralleling that experienced in previous and subsequent outbreaks caused by the virus’s exogenous strains.
In Chapter 5, canine rabies returns to southern Africa at mid-twentieth century, likely entering from central or even northern Africa. Claiming humans, a species of antelope (kudu), jackals, and dogs as victims, it established reservoirs among the latter two especially. At loose in domestic animals as well as in wildlife, and taking advantage of colonial and postcolonial conflict, chaos, and violence, this outbreak displayed a greater intensity than even earlier ones.
Chapter 6 examines an outbreak of rabies among domestic dogs, chiefly in what is now the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. [End Page 500] (Before 1994, KwaZulu was a Zulu “homeland” under apartheid and Natal, the surrounding province.) Beginning about 1960, this outbreak differed from earlier ones by producing greater human mortality and by giving greater play to political unrest, violence, and poverty.
The concluding Chapter 7 of this otherwise well-conceived and fluently written book wanders off in three directions—AIDS, rabies control and prevention, and future historical research. None of the three paths go very far, but fade away like mountain trails, leaving unfulfilled expectations for recapitulation, restatement, or re-emphasis.
Mad Dogs and Meerkats limits itself to traces of rabies now found in libraries and archives, overlooking two decades of laboratory research by molecular epidemiologists. Their work—the most...