Friday, March 2, 2012


In 2010 my friend Kate Uraneck at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene invited me to perform some excerpts of Pathology Laffs for her colleagues at the end of one of their weekly meetings. Kate introduced me to Marci Layton, who was kind enough to give me the official invite. At the meeting I listened to conversations about different diseases effecting New York's populace. I'm sure it was business as usual for everyone there, but I was captivated. I had a blast and everyone seemed to really enjoy the cartoons. This was the first crowd that laughed right away at the captions of the cartoons. Most audiences have to wait for my explanation of the image. Talk about a target audience! The result of this encounter was a collaboration with Sally Slavinsky, the department zoologist. Sally has a great sense of humor and was willing to talk about rabies as often as I wanted to. And thus Hoorabies for Rabies came to be! 

The Hoorabies for Rabies title image was inspired by an article published by the Center for Disease Control a number of years ago. It describes the incredible havoc wreaked on the emotions, health, and pocketbooks of 40 people after a box of kittens was brought to a softball tournament. Normally the combination of kittens and girls softball teams are benign and even adorable. But in this case the kittens had been rescued from a dumpster, and guess what? Yup! At least one of them was rabid.

Rabies is a virus spread through saliva. If virus-laden saliva enters the body through a bite, cut, scratch, or through mucous membranes of the mouth or nose, it's trouble. Rabies is fatal. There is no cure once symptoms manifest. You die from a swollen brain. In the last century or so there are only 2 reports of people surviving rabies. It's 100% fatal. If someone has been exposed to rabies they must receive a series of prophylactic injections to save their life and they must do it before they present with symptoms. 

Why then, is this illustration funny? Because people could have died through a tragicalamity of errors but they did not thanks to the preventative injection series. Plus deadly kittens are always funny because they look so cute and harmless. These life-threatening and adorable little creatures also cost everyone over $38,000 in prophylactic injections, alone. Try to keep a scores of ten-year-old girls from handling a bunch of adorable kittens, I dare you. Then try to figure out which girls specifically were most likely exposed to rabies. Then try talking to their parents. Ha! Ha!

The caption says, "Sorry Bandit! Princess can't com out to play -- she has to go to the lab today!" Sadly, our poodle Princess has been a naughty puppy and bit someone. To add to her woes she must have started behaving strangely and showing symptoms of rabies, hence the necessity of her going to the lab. 

The humor of this cartoon is found primarily in the fact that the lab doesn't need all of Princess to test her for rabies, just a piece of her brain. Animals suspected of having rabies must be euthanized and have their brains examined under a microscope. The absurdity of the dog's owner killing Princess herself, then chopping her head off with a cleaver and tying it up in a bag with the very ribbon that was worn around the dog's neck is ludicrous and therefore funny. 

This is actually a happy ending for the rabid Princess! Rabies is a painful and hideous way to die. 

You'll notice the neighborhood dogs come to visit Princess are greeted by the poodle's owner, wearing clothing fashionable in the 1950's. This is because there hasn't been a case of dog rabies in New York City (just the city) since 1954. The woman's June Cleaver appearance is set against the actual cleaver in her hand, creating a double entendre. How droll!

Okay, here's one more...

Rebecca the rabies virus says, "No Roger! I don't care if there's a convention in the dorsal root ganglion! I am not taking axonal transport with those viruses!" Rabies, herpes, and many other viruses travel through the nervous system via the same mechanism, fast axonal transport.  Don't worry, I'm not going to try to explain it. But the metaphor of train tracks is perfect in describing the axonal tracts used by the nerve cell for this method of transporting substances along its length. 

The joke is that a deadly rabies virus is a snob and will not associate herself with a socially stigmatizing but non-terminal disease. To add levity, the herpes viruses are sporting fezzes, associating them with Shriners traveling to a convention. Shriners are in no way associated with Legionnaires nor legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnare's disease.

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