Credit: I need to know: Are vampires susceptible to blood-borne diseases? Especially STDs such as AIDS or herpes? I’m considering a transition in lifestyle and have narrowed it down to vampire or pirate. So will my poison be blood or rum? —Daniel Lancaster
Man, I miss the good old days, when all you needed to go alternative was some tattoos.
The first thing to know is, blood isn’t needed to spread most sexually transmitted diseases; the main requirement is (duh) sex. Take herpes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the different strains are spread to varying degrees by mucosal, genital, or oral secretions, often during sex or the buildup thereto. Since by all accounts vampires are constantly getting it on, you’ll be putting yourself in the crosshairs of all sorts of microbes: syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, and hepatitises B and C. There are also non-sexually transmitted diseases to watch out for, like malaria or West Nile virus, both of which can be spread by a tainted blood transfusion.
So yes, at first glance vampirism would appear to be a high-risk lifestyle. Beyond that, however, it’s difficult to offer much guidance owing to a lack of agreement in the folklore and among modern authors about how the whole vampire thing works. Blood consumption methods, for example, range from the traditional twin punctures in the jugular to tearing the victim apart like a wild dog. The latter isn’t behavior we encourage, however, and we’ll speak of it no more.
One gathers that typically the blood is swallowed and winds up in the vampire’s stomach. The question is what happens next. The stomach is one of the first lines of defense against ingested pathogens, with its fierce acidity killing most bacteria. Does a vampire have stomach acid? The literature is silent on this point. However, given that vampires’ ongoing vitality is contingent on blood intake, they must have a digestive process of some kind, during the workings of which hostile bugs would likely get digested too.
But what if some slip through? That brings us to a larger question: is a vampire susceptible to infection? A review of the overall mythology of vampires (for example, the Anne Rice oeuvre) suggests that, for many, the answer is no—vampires are supernatural creatures and don’t obey the laws of nature. Longtime readers will recognize this as the “he’s Superman” argument, which has vexed your columnist in the past. Nothing against the supernatural, but it forecloses all further discussion, leaving us a half column short.
Instead, let’s be scientific. We’ve known since Bram Stoker’s day that a vampire’s body temperature is much lower than a normal human’s (owing to the body’s being basically dead), and human diseases survive better under normal human conditions. We also know the body isn’t subject to the usual processes of decay and constitutes an effectively sterile environment, inhospitable to germs. For example, in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, Darla, a 17th-century prostitute dying of syphilis, has her illness go dormant after she’s turned into a vampire, only to see it return with a vengeance upon being un-vamped.
Another point to consider is that since a vampire isn’t technically alive, its cells presumably don’t divide. That means a virus can’t hijack the cell reproduction cycle and spread—more good news for the would-be undead.
At least one source says vampires can get sick. In Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, vampires are at risk of contracting “Sino-AIDS,” a fictional malady that can incapacitate or kill them. For the TV adaptation, True Blood, the scriptwriters evidently felt that a Chinese strain of AIDS made a less-than-ideal plot device and replaced it with hepatitis D, an actual virus that for purposes of the show is harmless to its human carriers but lays vampires low. The keen observer will recognize this for what it is: the kryptonite gambit, another shameless borrowing from Superman. I ignored the last one, and I’ll ignore this one too.
Perhaps you don’t care about storybook vampires, though. You want to be a real (that is, fake) vampire, namely one of those ubergoth wannabes haunting high school halls and shopping malls. Practitioners of bloodplay, or drinking blood, can definitely catch diseases, and aficionados advise regular blood testing, monogamy, and avoidance of risky pre-dining activities such as, believe it or not, tooth brushing or flossing, since these may cause abrasions through which a blood-borne pathogen may invade.
So which is it, vampire or pirate? Tough call. Either way you get to wear flashy clothes, talk with a funny accent, indulge in binge drinking, and make women swoon. My suggestion? Do both—be a bloodsucking pirate. Granted, Johnny Depp has the Hollywood end of this sewn up. But you can always get a job at an investment bank. —Cecil Adams
Have something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.