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Louis Pasteur and rabies vaccination

In the 19th century, many rabies cases plagued Europe. In London, for example, 29 deaths by "hydrophobia" were enumerated in the first weeks of 1877, and the Rabies Order gave local authorities the right to muzzle, control, seize, lock up, and dispose of stray dogs to combat the "rabies of the streets". Louis Pasteur began to work on rabies in 1880. His initial objective was to find ways to prevent the diseases, following the route opened by his work on fowl cholera.

He first succeeded in stabilizing the rabies virus by multiple transmissions from one species to another, and, starting in 1884, presented the successful results of a preventive rabies vaccination experiment on dogs. The principle of vaccination before exposure to rabies in animals was established. Pasteur then sought to improve his method and developed a means of attenuating the virulence, which consisted in exposing the rabid spinal cords of rabbits to the air. Their use in the preventive vaccination of dogs proved effective. Louis Pasteur then had the idea to use this vaccination to create immunity after a bite, and to give it to a human.

Pasteur took the step in 1885 and obtained his first success in humans with the vaccination of a 9-year-old child, Joseph Meister, who was presented to Pasteur in his laboratory at the Ecole Normale on rue d’Ulm in Paris. The young boy who arrived from Alsace presented multiple deep bites. He received 13 injections of rabbit medulla homogenate (one per day) and survived. Three months later, Pasteur repeated the experiment on a young shepherd, Jean-Baptiste Jupille, severely bitten by a rabid dog. On 26 October 1885, Pasteur showed the promising results of his treatment against rabies in humans to the French Academy of Sciences. From then on, patients bitten by rabid animals flocked to Pasteur’s laboratory. On 1 March 1886, Pasteur presented a paper to the French Academy of Sciences with the results from the inoculation of 350 people. There was a single failure, due to the fact that the treatment had been applied much too late, when the virus had probably reached the nervous system. Some months later, Pasteur reported the results of 726 inoculations.

In the memorable meeting of 1 March 1886, Pasteur concluded: "Rabies prophylaxis after a bite is justified. There is cause to create a rabies vaccine establishment". He immediately launched an international fund. Thanks to the worldwide repercussions of his successes against rabies, donations flooded in. As a result, in 1887 an institute was created dedicated not only to rabies treatment, but to Pasteur’s study of science. The Institut Pasteur was opened in November 1888.