Lincoln Park Zoo works to eradicate rabies in Africa

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Czupryna, an effusive, compulsively organized, first-generation Polish-American, focuses on the household dogs. She is especially interested in the new births, because she is trying to learn what happens to the size and health of an area's dog population after it starts receiving rabies vaccinations.

"I've got at least four puppies, possibly a fifth,” she announces, emerging from the protected birthplace. Domestic dogs are the key because they are the “reservoirs” for rabies. The virus spreads into wild animals when there is contact with infected dogs — as they tangle alongside grazing cattle, for instance. But research has shown that vaccinating 70 percent of a region's domestic dogs will prevent them from becoming a host population.

Czupryna gathers as much data as possible, recording it in field notebooks, in photographs and on a small laptop. She weighs the dogs when she can, photographs their teeth, takes fecal samples she'll transport to Chicago for analysis.

"It gets a little OCD at times,” says Faust, an expert in population genetics and a former field researcher herself, “but then you have this rich data set to go back to."

Part of that data set involves the Ginyebus' firsthand experience with rabies.

"Six people were bitten by hyena in year 2000,” says the questionnaire the family fills out, with help from Bigambo, in the section labeled “Table N: Human Bite Incidence.”

Below that, the form asks: “Do you know what rabies is?” The response: “Disease that caused animal to go mad (crazy and starts to bite people).”

"We (have been) participating in the study because of the attack,” says the father, 69-year-old Buyombo Ginyebu.

Telling of that night, the family members speak, in Sukuma, without dramatic flourish. “We just accept what we have,” Buyombo Ginyebu says. “We blame the rabies and the hyena, too.”

Hyenas look like some sort of genetic misfire, animals whose component parts seem just on the brink of fitting together, but they are forceful enough to drive a cheetah from its downed prey in the Serengeti grasslands. Imagine that power stoked by madness and unleashed in darkness, within a rural family's close, mud-brick walls.

Maduhu's mother holds up her left hand to display the place where a thumb was once attached. His father pushes back his long sleeves to show wrists badly damaged from fending off the carnivore. Maduhu, just 7 when he was bitten on the nose and cheek, doesn't have to make any special effort to show what happened to him, nor can he hide it.

After the attack, the wounded family members were taken to a medical clinic in the much bigger town of Bariadi, 37 miles away. The family sold its greatest asset, seven cattle, to pay for months of further treatment; the herd has been rebuilt through the kindness of relatives, the Ginyebus say.

Early the next morning, villagers tracked and killed the hyena, beating the rabies virus to the punch.

'As old as civilization'

In the developed world, it is easy to think almost nothing about rabies. We know the legends, of course. Viciousness. Depravity. A disease that, unless treated before symptoms appear, is nearly 100 percent fatal and horrific in its final throes.

In their 2012 cultural history “Rabid,” Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy describe the disease's tortures. A common one: Almost all rabid humans develop a passionate thirst and an equally passionate revulsion to water. Rabies, they note, may have inspired the werewolf, vampire and zombie legends.

"Rabies is a scourge as old as human civilization, and the terror of its manifestation is a fundamental human fear, because it challenges the boundary of humanity itself,” write Wasik, a science writer, and his wife, Murphy, a veterinarian. “For the rabid bite is the visible symbol of the animal infecting the human, of an illness in a creature metamorphosing demonstrably into that same illness in a person.”

We also know that Louis Pasteur took care of all that. In 1885, the French scientist and his team developed the first working vaccine by spreading rabies to rabbits, then drying their infected nerve tissue and mixing it into a potion. A 9-year-old boy bitten by a rabid dog was the first human recipient, and Pasteur's gamble worked.

Instead of contracting rabies, the boy produced antibodies that fought off the virus before it spread through his nervous system into the brain.

Now — in most of the developed world, at least — domestic dogs, once rabies' greatest transmitters, get annual vaccine shots, and incidence of the disease is reduced to the occasional bite from an infected bat, fox or raccoon. In the U.S., human deaths related to rabies have declined to one or two a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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