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@