The British government’s campaign of mass hysteria in order to keep the nation rabies-free.
Once upon a time, an overwhelming fear stalked Britain. It was a fear of disease-ridden Europeans invading and spreading their ghastly influence across the pure and unsullied island, devastating our way of life and our great traditions. It’s a general suspicion that has gripped the British, one way or another, for centuries and most recently led to Brexit. But in this case, it was very specifically aimed at rabies, a disease that had been wiped out in Britain in 1900 and was not coming back if the authorities had anything to say about it.
Now, rabies is a genuinely awful infection – if you get to the stage of showing symptoms, then you are going to die, with hallucinations, convulsions, hydrophobia and more during your final days. As ways to die go, rabies is certainly among the most awful, and it makes a lot of sense to do all you can to keep it out of society. But the British reaction to rabies was… well, rabid. It bordered on mass hysteria – if you grew up in the 1970s when foreign holidays and cross-European trade became increasingly commonplace, then rabies would’ve been a constant terror. The fear of people bringing back this ghastly foreign infection was rampant, and not just among imaginative schoolboys.
The 1974 Rabies Act set out an almost wartime scenario for dealing with a possible breach of quarantine or the accidental importation of a foreign fox that would then infect British foxes, which were seen as hardier than their continental counterparts and so likely to stay alive and infectious for much longer. The Act included the provision of mass wildlife culls and the execution of domestic pets – though the latter might have led to insurrection on a huge scale. The mass culls had already taken place when a soldier brought his pet dog back from West Germany in 1969, and the animal developed rabies symptoms after its six months of quarantine was up; to make matters worse, it then escaped its home and wandered free for several hours. A mass extermination of local wildlife followed, which was either a huge success or entirely unnecessary, depending on how you look at it – no wider outbreak took place, but equally, there was no evidence of infection beyond the dog anyway.
During the second half of the 1970s and beyond, the government mounted a mass public information campaign about rabies, aimed at people who were smuggling pets – an understandable crime, given the sixth-month quarantine period that was all too often a death sentence for animals imprisoned in the quarantine centres. The posters and television ads set out a nightmare scenario where every dog that you might meet was a foaming, ferocious rabies carrier, and where Britain would enter a state of isolated terror should the disease reach these shores. Complete with a stabbing ‘RABIES’ logo and film clips of the convulsing infected, these were the stuff of nightmares, where even the most innocuous kitten might be become a crazed monster, infecting its owner and unleashing a 28 Days Later-level horror across Britain.
Rabies paranoia invariably spread into the pulp fiction world, where tales involving rampaging wildlife was a popular genre. Novels like Saliva, The Rage and Day of the Mad Dogs cashed in on public fears, as did the BBC TV series The Mad Death. And as European integration expanded, so did public paranoia – how much of this was due to general xenophobia as a serious fear of rabies is unknown, but the disease increasingly took on an importance beyond its dangers.
But it was notable that the people of mainland Europe – where rabies was very much a thing – did not, by and large, sit cowering in their houses, and were not suffering from some Night of the Living Dead-style apocalypse, either of people or pets. In fact, by the start of the 1970s, rabies amongst domestic pets was well under control – not exactly wiped out, but making up 22% of cases – only 7% of which were dogs. And Europe was a big place, and in less rural areas, those figures were much smaller. The vast majority of cases of rabies were in foxes, and while fox rabies was – according to the World Health Organisation – advancing eastward by twenty to thirty miles a year, it is hard to see how that could be translated into a major threat to Britain; foxes (especially rabid foxes with a fear of water) were not attempting to swim the channel in vast numbers.
Rabies became a constant line in the sand for British governments dealing with mainland Europe, and opponents of the Channel Tunnel tried to paint a nightmare picture of hordes of rabid wildlife taking the train into London on an hourly basis, spilling out like a zombie invasion at St Pancras. But the truth was that by the time the tunnel opened in 1994, rabies cases in France had fallen to less than two hundred a year, none were domestic pets and most of those were in the areas near the German border. It would have taken an especially Anglophobic fox to had made that trip.
As vaccines and blood tests became more effective, so the British quarantine system became less sustainable an argument, even within the UK. In 2000, a Pet Passport system was introduced, and despite fears about forgery, there have been no cases of imported rabies in the two decades since. 2002 did see a domestic rabies infection after a conservationist was bitten by a bat in the Scottish Highlands. This turned out to be an exceptionally unlucky case, however, and fears of rabid bat invasions have proven to be just as hysterical as most other rabies panics.
The glorious, feverish days of rabies paranoia are long over, despite occasional efforts by the press to revive them. These days, British fears and suspicions about foreigners tend to be rather more upfront, and the isolation of Britain has long since crumbled. As Covid has shown us, being an island is no protection against infectious disease. The heyday of rabies terror is now far enough away to be seen for the mass hysteria that it generally was – a real concern blown out of all proportion. But at least it came with the silver lining of some impressively fear-mongering public information films and posters, and that’s something.
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