The urban legends surrounding myxomatosis reaches far beyond its history. Most people link it up to conspiracy theories of a man-made disease.
Rabbits used to be the perfect sailing companion-on-a-plate. They bred quickly and can be carried everywhere. It was food on the go, the sandwich of the early explorers. And then, one of the imported rabbits from early explorers carried a virus called myxomatosis.
An Australian scientist, Frank John Fenner, was sent on a mission to use this little-known virus to ‘control’ the spreading rabbit population in Australia that was destroying the ecology. This same man would later be haled for eradicating the smallpox virus, which is possibly one of the most gruesome illness i have ever seen for humans.
Myxomatosis was deadly. Two The rabbits’ eyes would bleed, ears would literally fall out until the animal would die of a painful, death while rotting alive in front of your eyes within 10 days.
The virus was so effective that it quickly spread outside the pest zones and into people’s back gardens. A vaccination was available but was banned from use incase resistance would be passed to the wild rabbits. Children would have to witness their pet rabbits would catch this goreish, fatal disease and there was nothing they could do about it. Suddenly this was starting to spring up the ethical debate of ‘pest control’- the different expectations in our attitudes towards some animals seen as pests and other luckier ones treated as pests.
But the virus did not stop there…
It started to spread uncontrollably out of the country, to France, thanks to a bacteriologist who only wanted to control his estate. He found himself praised by farmers and hated by hunters. The illness spread to the rest of Europe until it caused mass starvation in countries where it was the main diet.
This is when the science community started worrying about the mutational possibilities of such an ‘effective’ virus. The initial assurance of death these rabbits has now reduced to less than half. That means the rabbits we have today are the descendants of the few left resistant ones. I remember learning about this in biology class as an example of genetics and immunity hereditary.
To be continued…