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03:43 PM ET 09/21/98

Could rabies explain the vampire legend?

         
            By Andrew Quinn
            SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Could rabies be behind the legend
of the vampire?
            A Spanish neurologist, proposing a novel genesis for one of
the most feared ghouls in Western culture, says the tale of the
blood-sucking predator may have originated with a major rabies
epidemic in Europe in the 1700s.
            ``Sometimes things that are apparently bizarre and senseless
can have a logical explanation,'' said Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso of
Xeral Hospital in Vigo, Spain. His rabid vampire thesis appears
in the issue of the journal Neurology released Monday.
            Gomez-Alonso said he had always assumed vampires were
fictional creatures from Europe's superstitious past.
            ``Then one day I saw a classic Dracula film,'' he said. ``I
watched the film more as a doctor than as a spectator, and I
became so impressed by some obvious similarities between
vampires and what happens in rabies, such as aggressiveness and
hypersexuality.''
            Gomez-Alonso said he began his research by looking into
statistics on rabies symptoms, and found that 25 percent of
rabid men ``have a tendency to bite others.''
            He then went to the history books and found that early tales
of vampirism frequently coincided with reports of rabies
outbreaks in and around the Balkans, stretching back to a
particularly devastating epidemic of rabies in dogs, wolves and
other animals in Hungary from 1721-28.
            Ticking down the characteristics most frequently associated
with vampires, Gomez-Alonso said he believed he could explain
almost all of them as symptoms of rabies.
            The vampire's famous aversion to garlic and to mirrors could
be ascribed to hypersensitivity, which comes with rabies
infection, according to his theory.
            ``Men with rabies ... react to stimuli such as water, light,
odors or mirrors with spasms of the facial and vocal muscles
that can cause hoarse sounds, bared teeth and frothing at the
mouth of bloody fluid,'' he said.
            In the past, he contended, ``a man was not considered rabid
if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a
mirror.''
            The vampire's voracious sexual appetite and nocturnal habits
-- depicted in movies and on television as the suave Count
Dracula appearing  on a moonlit balcony -- could be attributed
to the effect of rabies on the parts of the brain that help
regulate sleep cycles and sexual behavior.
            ``Hypersexuality may be a striking manifestation of
rabies,'' Gomez-Alonso wrote in his article, adding that ``the
literature reports cases of rabid patients who practiced
intercourse up to 30 times in a day.''
            The common association of vampires with animals such as
wolves and bats could be explained by the fact that those
creatures are susceptible to, and often the source of rabies
infection, and can exhibit the same snarling, bloody-mouthed
visage as an infected human.
``It would be imaginable that men and beasts with identical
ferocious and bizarre behavior might have been seen as similar
malign beings,'' Gomez-Alonso said.
            He said even the vampire's fatal kiss, the bite itself,
could be traced to rabies.
            ``Man has a tendency to bite, both in fighting and in sexual
activities,'' Gomez-Alonso says. ``The intensification of such
tendency by rabies increases the risk of transmission, as the
virus is in saliva and other body secretions.''
         ^REUTERS@