Were Vampires Rabid?

The vampires of legend may have been real after all. According to a report in this month's Neurology, symptoms of rabies--such as a tendency to bite and an aversion to strong smells and mirrors--bear an uncanny resemblance to historical descriptions of vampires. The researcher notes that areas of Eastern Europe were panicked by reports of bloodthirsty undead in the early 1730s, a few years after a major rabies epidemic was recorded in Hungary among dogs and wild animals.

Juan Gómez-Alonso, a neurologist at the Hospital Xeral in Vigo, Spain, says the idea struck him as he watched his first vampire movie on television nearly 20 years ago. He was intrigued when the movie's presenter quoted philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau saying that vampires were real historical figures. "I watched the film more as a doctor trying to solve a difficult clinical case than as a spectator," he says.

Gómez-Alonso says there are plenty of reasons to diagnose vampires as rabid. Its victims suffer from insomnia and often have increased sex drives, he says, while vampires were said to wander in the night and stalk women. Rabies is much more common in men than in women, as was supposed vampirism. The animals associated with vampires--wolves and dogs--were common rabies carriers at the time. In addition, because rabies victims have trouble swallowing, bloody saliva sometimes drips from their mouths.

Some experts, however, aren't ready to drive a stake through this mystery. "It's an intriguing idea," says Charles Rupprecht, chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's rabies section, but he is not completely convinced. Even if a rabid "vampire" were to bite 100 people, he says, only 5% to 10% might develop rabies. The rabies explanation, he concludes, "is a bit of a stretch."

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